Yes, Team Building Is A Waste Of Time–But Trust Is Essential

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In his recent Harvard Business Review article,  “Stop Wasting Money on Team Building,” Carlos Valdes-Dapena opens with a stark assertion: “Most corporate team building is a waste of time and money.”

He’s right, of course. At least, he’s right insofar as the absurd and pricey experiences that are often used in corporate organizations to facilitate team building. Ropes courses, trust falls and the assortment of team building games out there all aim to create an environment of uncertainty and stress that build bonds of trust between people. Though well-intentioned, these artificial activities are (at best) thin shadows of the real thing. The adversity is contrived, and so the trust needed to thrive within it is hollow and temporary. As soon as participants return to the natural habitats of their work domains, the suspicious distrusts and self-focused motivations of old return, wreaking havoc on the ability of teams to function as a team.

Unfortunately, Valdes-Dapena takes this observation as proof that trust itself is not the necessary starting point for effective teamwork. This confuses the uselessness of silly corporate trust-building efforts with the usefulness of building the real thing. Instead, he proposes that trust is a naturally occurring byproduct of “dedicated people striving together” to achieve their own individual objectives, as clarified and aligned using his proprietary “collaboration framework.”

This is the hope of leaders and managers everywhere: to find a new organizational structure with clear definitions of roles and finely tuned incentives that enable group performance to excel whether people trust each other or not. The thinking goes: once you build that, trust can organically grow as the group’s goals or reached . . . or not. In this model, trust among team members is nice to have, but not a must-have.

The goal of finding a way to manage around the trust problem is understandable but misguided. It suffers from the twin problems of misunderstanding what teamwork really is and how it is built.


Understanding teamwork

Teamwork is a much deeper concept than simply group work. In a group work model, such as an assembly-line factory, the group effort is orchestrated by the design of the plan. Not much is required of workers beyond doing their own, individual tasks. While the parts of the whole are connected, they are not interrelated. The group can achieve its objectives with little to no relational coordination. So long as everyone does the task in front of them, the design of the system and its coordination from the authorities above will transform individual contribution into group production.

True teamwork requires more to achieve the “whole is greater than the sum of the parts” payoff. Watch high-performing teams in any domain, and you will see a group of people operating with a shared sense of mission and a feeling of camaraderie. They experience an esprit de corps that unites more than their collective efforts: it unites them. In this unity, members of a team care about more than just their own individual responsibilities and compensation. They care about the team’s mission and are invested in each other’s success as well. This state – colloquially described as “team chemistry” in the sports world – is now becoming the stuff of serious statistically study, as noted by Harvard Business Review four years ago with its article titled “Team Chemistry Is the New Holy Grail of Performance Analytics.”

Beyond chemistry, teamwork requires constant and open communication. This is so for reasons more important than mere sharing to be a “good team player.” As General Stanley McChrystal illustrates beautifully in his book, Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, the predictability of the industrial age of complicated machines has now given way to the unpredictability of the information age of complex networks. In this new environment, qualities such as flexibility, agility and speed are more important than ordered precision and operational efficiency. To achieve the level of coordination needed for teams to thrive in this new paradigm, rapid communication and transparent information sharing are paramount. As McChrystal put it in Teams:

“Through this combination of dense connectivity – trust – and their understanding of the situation and commitment to an outcome – purpose – teams like the SEALs can tackle threats more complex than any leader can foresee.”


Why trust matters

This requirement of teamwork to quickly and selflessly share information is why trust matters.

As anyone knows who has ever operated in a bureaucratic environment (whether public/government or private/corporate), all too often information is treated like both a currency and a weapon. People hoard information to make themselves more valuable to the organization (in general) and their bosses (in particular) by the ways they choose to share it. At the same time, how information gets shared or not can damage a rival teammate’s chances of success or a rival division’s ability to get a needed piece of the corporate budget. In these types of environments, people don’t freely share information because they don’t trust others not to use that information to their own disadvantage. Without trust, membership on a corporate team ends up resembling a Hobbesian state of nature, only with health insurance and a 401(k) plan.

As communication atrophies among members of teams – whether cross-functional or adjacent in nature (sales teams responsible for different territories or products, for example) – moments of conflict arise to steal the valuable time and attention of all involved. A vicious cycle then ensues: the breakdown in communication triggers conflict, and conflict reinforces the lack to trust that results in even more communication problems.

The consequence to the business for this lack of trust is one of lost opportunity costs. How much more productivity and creativity could be unleashed during the time spent in conflict cycles like this? Better yet, how many new ideas simply don’t get thought because of the lack of shared information at the right time for serendipity to do its magical work? No amount of organizational redesign, incentive restructuring or role clarity efforts can overcome the problem at the heart of it all: distrust. For teams to be willing to communicate in the ways needed for true teamwork to occur, a foundation of trust has to be built.

How trust is built

There are no easy shortcuts to building trust. It takes time, intention and the crucible of hard work. In the physical arenas like sports, trust is built through the sweat of practice and the pressure of performance. Talk to any veteran of military service and they say something similar: the rigors of military training forges a bond of trust among fellow soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines.

In matters less physical, the formula is still the same. Whether among partners in a marriage or peers in a business, building trust requires embracing the hard emotional work of vulnerability.  In his bestselling book The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business, author Patrick Lencioni zeros in on trust as the foundation of a healthy leadership team. According to Lencioni, the door that leads to that kind of trust is vulnerability:

“When everyone on a team knows … that no one is going to hide his or her weaknesses or mistakes, they develop a deep and uncommon sense of trust. They speak more freely and fearlessly with one another and don’t waste time and energy putting on airs or pretending to be someone they’re not. … At the heart of vulnerability lies the willingness of people to abandon their pride and their fear, to sacrifice their egos for the collective good of the team.”

Yes, it’s true: the expensive offsites and goofy games fail to build the trust that makes teamwork happen. But proving the former are largely useless isn’t the same as proving the latter to be unnecessary. In the rapidly changing environment facing every business now, effective teamwork is needed now more than ever. This means doing the hard work of looking team members in the eye and embracing the vulnerability that starts the process of building trust. And if you’re the leader? It means you get to go first.

There’s no other way.


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