Team Building

Teamwork has always been an important feature of successful organizations, but the use of teams as a business strategy and structure was relatively rare until the 1980s. Now, in the 21st century, work teams have become a common feature in many manufacturing and product development organizations, service organizations, and government agencies. They range from ongoing work teams on the floor of a manufacturing plant, to white collar teams, teams of managers or executives, problem-solving committees, project-based teams, or task forces that exist only for the duration of a given problem.

Although the effectiveness of these teams varies considerably from organization to organization, teams work best when they are composed of employees who have interdependent jobs and the best subject matter knowledge of the work to be accomplished, and when the leadership of the organization plays an active role in establishing and supporting them.

People often equate team building with trust building or relationship building, but that is only half of what is needed to develop a group of individuals into a highly functioning team. Teams exist to perform, to accomplish something for the organization. Thus, team building must also include knowledge of business objectives and the development of goals, roles, and procedures needed to get the job done. Team-building efforts must be task-oriented as well as relationship-oriented.

How teams are built will be, to some extent, a function of the type of team being implemented, but all team-building efforts need to include the following characteristics:

  • Alignment around goals
  • Clarification of roles
  • Establishment of policies and procedures
  • Building effective working relationships
  • Working with the environment, including support systems

Team building can be done within the team, or at the organizational level, where multiple teams, or even a team-based organization, is desired. Team building can also be done within the team itself.

Team Building at Organizational Level

Organizational team building generally begins with a steering committee composed of the leadership of the organization (at the local level). For example, a steering committee in a manufacturing plant would typically be composed of the operating committee of that plant, as well as the local union leadership in unionized plants. (In unionized settings, the authors strongly recommend bringing the union in at the beginning of any team-development effort.) The steering committee would determine the following framework for the teams:

  • Goals. Often established with a charter or mission statement. Why is the organization developing and launching teams? What are goals for having teams in the organization?
  • Roles. How teams would be structured. Within functions? Cross-functionally? How many teams? How many members for a given team? How will we deploy and use talent? To whom do the teams report? Are there leaders on each team? Will members be expected to learn one another’s jobs and rotate among the jobs? Who is to make which decisions?
  • Policies and procedures. How are members and leaders selected? How are team meetings conducted? What kinds of issues can the team address on its own? Are team decisions to be made by consensus?
  • Relationships. How do we ensure that the teams function effectively? How will the teams manage conflict? How will we reinforce good team behavior?
  • Environment. How will the various organizational systems (e.g., finance systems, personnel systems, communications systems, rewards systems) support the teams?
  • The plan for rolling out teams in the organization. What will be the timing? Will the teams process be piloted in some areas of the plant?

Once the steering committee has established this framework, the organization can begin the actual implementation of its teams. Implementation will consist of preparing the organization, providing training in the necessary skills, management of the relevant support systems, and the actual launching of the teams. The steering committee/leadership team will also have to provide ongoing direction and support to the teams. Direction may be in the form of policy deployment, in which business goals are established for each team. Support will be ensuring that the team is able to get its issues resolved and its ideas implemented. Direction and support from leadership is absolutely critical in any successful organizational team-building effort.

Launching of the teams may well begin with one or more pilots of the proposed team structure. Pilots are often helpful, particularly in brownfield sites (usually underused or abandoned commercial/industrial property that may also be environmentally contaminated), where the organization or plant has been in operation with the same employees over a period of time without teams. Pilots enable the steering committee to test its strategy for its teams and to see what adjustments it should make before rolling out teams throughout the entire organization. Pilots are also a confidence builder for the organization (including management, the union, and employees generally), proving that it has a workable and successful process. Teams should be implemented at a pace that is supportable by the organization. Launching teams that fail, because they are not supported or because they lack direction or skills, will substantially impede the overall team implementation process.

Preparing the organization consists generally of communication to midlevel management and other employees—answering their questions about the teams’ process and addressing their concerns. Questions can be expected to include how a given employee’s job will change when the teams are implemented (i.e., What will my new job look like? Will I need to learn new skills?).

Selection of team members and team leaders is important. Often teams will be composed of the existing employees of the organization. If new members are being brought in, selection procedures should support teamwork. Selection procedures should also be established to ensure that new team leaders have good people skills and also will work to help the organization achieve its goals.

Skill development—of both team members and leaders—is also critical. Generally, new or additional skills are required for team members to perform effectively. These skills usually cluster into three groups:

  • Technical skills (to get the job done)
  • Teamwork skills (the interpersonal and facilitative abilities needed to help people work and solve problems together)
  • Business skills (understanding of business metrics, how the organization functions regarding quality, timing and material flow systems, and the computer systems relevant to team members’jobs)

Ensuring systems support for teams is also critical. Team efforts in some organizations are hindered by some of the systems already in place in the organization. (Systems to monitor in a manufacturing plant would be the engineering, finance, information, and human resource systems.) For example, if the finance systems in a plant discourage team development by penalizing teams for meetings, training, implementation of ideas, and so on, organizational leadership will need to manage this, or the teams’ process will continually be swimming against the current. If major support systems are congruent with the team-building effort, they will aid considerably in the long-term health of the teams.

The final piece of organizational team building is evaluation (and adjustment where required). Teams should be evaluated on a regular basis to ensure they are using the right processes and that they are achieving anticipated results. If teams are not achieving the goals set out for them, leadership needs to ask why and to take the actions required to help the teams become more successful.

Team Building at Team Level

Team building within the team will also be critical. Generally, this team building will be ongoing rather than a one-shot session and will be composed of training and discussion specific to that team. Also, team-building training, as opposed to training for skill development, is conducted with the entire intact team, rather than with individuals. Topics might include the following:

  • Goals. Training/discussion may be focused on how to set clear goals. Many organizations insist on teams negotiating a team charter between the team and responsible mangers (and union leaders) to empower the team to accomplish things on behalf of the organization.
  • Roles. It is important that each member of the team understand the roles and responsibilities he or she is expected to fulfill for this team to succeed. An understanding of the talent that exists on the team, and how best to use it, allows members to understand why clear roles are important. Group dynamics roles should be clarified in addition to task-related roles.
  • Procedures. Training/discussion should be focused on how to identify and resolve problems, how to reach consensus decisions, and how to conduct effective and efficient meetings. Time may also be dedicated to the establishment of specific work task procedures. This standardization of work may be especially important if the team members are expected to learn one another’s jobs and to rotate among positions on the team.
  • Relationships. Training/discussion may be focused on improving communication skills (especially effective listening and providing constructive feedback) and how to enhance conflict resolution skills. Sessions may also be dedicated for team members to get better acquainted, in the hope that this will lead to greater trust among members. (An area that probably deserves more research is to investigate whether these bonding activities actually lead to greater performance or whether greater performance of a team leads to increased bonding among team members.) Regardless of the causal relationship between these elements, it is generally thought that respect, trust, and embracement of the benefits of diversity are key dimensions of the relationship side of team development.
  • Environment. Teams are not closed systems. It is critical that they interact effectively with their external environments. Teams need good diplomatic relationships with key managers, union officials, other teams, and the functions that affect their performance. Team members must feel free to disagree with each other during team meetings but should present a united, positive front to the rest of the organization.

Virtually all teams experience times when they feel stuck. This can occur if teams have resolved the easy problems and are now confronted by more complex problems. Teams can become snagged on political issues. Also, teams are often changed by the introduction of new members or the loss of some old members. It is important to monitor the health of teams and take steps to intervene to help them stay viable. These steps may include revisiting the team-building steps described earlier in this chapter and especially asking the team to revisit its charter. Teams should be asked to apply the problem-solving and planning skills they have learned in their team-building sessions to the problems underlying their own performance.


Team building can be done at the organizational level and within the team itself. All team-building efforts will address goals, roles, policies and procedures, relationships, and the environment. Team building at the organizational level will also require preparation of the organization, skills development, management of support systems, and evaluation of the teams.


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  4. Katzenbach, J. R., & Smith, D. K. (2002). The wisdom of teams: Creating the high-performance organization. New York: Harper Business Essentials.
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  6. Weldon, E., & Weingart, L. R. (1993). Group goals and group performance. British Journal of Social Psychology, 32, 307-334.

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