Should You Start with Team Building to Increase Engagement?

Analyze a team’s dynamics before prescribing solutions

When I worked at Lowe’s Home Improvement, I managed a talent development team that supported several departments. Inevitably, one of my VPs or directors would call and ask for team building efforts. When I receive these requests, I can’t help but think that this is sort of like a patient asking a medical doctor to prescribe the latest pharmaceutical product as seen on TV. As some HR professionals have told me, prescribing solutions without diagnosis is malpractice.

When someone requests for team building, I always ask why. I typically discover that the requestor thinks team engagement is low and believes that team building will resolve the problem.

Instead of denying the request, I’d ask the requestor if I could talk with the team lead and some of the team members to figure out more about the team’s challenges. If team building really is the right solution, I’d explain that I want to select the right type of team building activities that would bring in the best results. The requestor would agree without realizing that I just asked permission to diagnose the problem.

First step: diagnose like a medical doctor

If you receive the team building request, you need to persuade requestors to allow you to diagnose the low engagement levels. Diagnosis is different from analysis. With analysis, you just look at the structure and with diagnosis, you identify the nature of the problem by examining the symptoms. I’ll explain how to diagnose using a medical analogy.

Imagine Dr. Fred, a medical doctor, examining Susan, a patient complaining of a forearm pain. Dr. Fred looks at Susan’s arm x-ray to examine the bones. What Dr. Fred does is mentally compare Susan’s bone structure with a healthy bone structure. When he discovers a discrepancy between Susan’s bones and a set of healthy bones, Dr. Fred mentally compares the discrepancy with several medical cases of damaged bones to identify the problem. In this case, Susan has a simple fracture.

Here’s what enables Dr. Fred to diagnose: On the outside, human beings look somewhat different. But underneath the skin, humans share similar bone, muscle, and nervous systems – all of which are interdependent systems. Human beings tend to have common problems, and medical doctors learn to recognize them (such as a bone fractures).

Like medical doctors, HR professionals diagnose teams and organizations. Geary Rummler, a performance consultant, discovered that when you examine organizations, they have a similar anatomy and health problems. Through training, HR professionals can learn to recognize discrepancies between healthy and unhealthy teams and organizations.

Back to team building: what to diagnose

Through observation, interviews, and focus groups, HR professionals can diagnose teams to discover the cause of low team engagement. I recommend focusing on five areas that can have serious negative consequences when any are imbalanced. In my upcoming blogs, I’ll describe each area in more detail.

1. Psychological safety

In healthy teams, team members share the belief that they can safely take interpersonal risks within the team. Team members can become disengaged when punished for making mistakes, criticized for expressing their opinion, or ignored when making suggestions.

2. Growth mindset

In healthy teams, team members believe that they can improve through practice, determination, and effort. With a growth mindset, team members react to failure as a challenge and something that they can learn from. Team members can become disengaged when they have more of a fixed mindset: When they perform poorly, they believe that they have failed; they hide mistakes, avoid challenges, take on easier tasks, and avoid blame.

3. Awareness of biases

Healthy teams are aware of biases, mental shortcuts, and mental traps such as confirmation bias, fundamental attribution error, cognitive dissonance, projection bias, liking and rapport, ingroup/outgroup biases, and sunk-cost bias. Healthy teams acknowledge that they have these biases, don’t feel guilty when they discover their own bias impact, and as a team, try to manage biases as much as possible.Team members can become disengaged when they are less aware of their own biases and act from them. Bias thinking can cause a great amount of team disharmony and performance problems.

4. Amount of intentional action

Healthy teams have a reasonable amount of autonomy in which management (and team leads) encourage creativity and innovation. Management may set the goals, but the team members decide how they can best achieve the goals.Team members can become disengaged when management demands more control and turns team members into order-takers. Team members are discouraged to think for themselves, and management only wants them to execute.

5. Workload balance

Healthy team leads distribute work fairly. When less skilled team members have a challenging task, the lead or a more experienced team member coaches and supports the team member and improves their skillset.Team members can become disengaged when team leads assign the most difficult tasks to top performing employees exclusively. High performers resent the heavier workloads compared to average to low performers, and average to low performers begrudge mundane assignments.

Diagnosing these five areas helps HR professionals determine the causes of low team engagement. Each area has a set of solutions to help teams improve. The following flowchart illustrates this.

HR Team Diagnosis Process

One-size-fits-all solutions aren’t always right

Back to the medical example, Dr. Fred prescribes multiple solutions to get Susan healed. First, he creates a splint to stabilize the arm. Second, he has Susan wear a sling to immobilize the arm. Third, he asks Susan to use ice or cold packs to decrease the swelling. He also asks Susan to make sure to clean and dry her splint. Susan then needs to use a pillow to elevate her arm when sleeping or sitting to help decrease swelling. Lastly, Dr. Fred prescribes medication to help Susan manage the pain.

Like Dr. Fred, HR professionals know that single solutions tend to have minimal impact. Low employee engagement tends to be complex and need multiple interventions. The one-size-fits-all team building solution may help in some ways, but more action may be required.

Word of caution

When someone asks for team building, avoid saying no. You don’t want the requestor to not collaborate with you and to hire a vendor for team building training (and be dissatisfied with the results). Instead, explain that you need more information about what’s going on so that you can find the most effective solutions.

Call to action

When requestors come to you asking for solutions, try to understand the underlying problem that triggered the request. Develop ways to obtain permission to investigate and diagnose the root causes. Then, collaborate with the requestor to implement a set of solutions that would strengthen engagement. Who knows, team building might be part of the solution set!

To learn more about employee engagement, check out Achievers eBook Engage or Die: How Companies That Act Fast on Engagement Outpace the Competition.

How companies that act fast on engagement outpace the competition

Profile image of author: Gary DePaul

Gary DePaul is the owner of HR Leadership Curators (HRLC). HRLC serves the Charlotte area with workshops and seminars to strengthen how HR and talent development professionals contribute to the lines of business and to business goals. Workshops are small group (15-20) that focus on evidence-based techniques, tools, and templates. Gary is the author of Nine Practices of 21st Century Leadership and The Most Effective and Responsible Clinical Training Techniques in Medicine. He speaks about leadership at organizational events, conferences, association chapter meetings, and chambers of commerce events.

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