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Should you trade team building for ‘team bonding’?

two men and one woman are enjoying their team bonding

Let’s face it: nobody likes being forced into an awkward team building session. You know, the one where everyone is made to dance like a trained monkey, or you’re handcuffed together, or some other thing designed to “bond” a group of coworkers, yet just ends up mildly embarrassing everyone involved and confirming why aliens don’t want to contact Earth.

That’s not to say that team building activities are useless — they just have to be done in the right way. And maybe your organization isn’t in a place to plan these activities or pay the big bucks to hire outside facilitators. 

Building relationships between team members is crucial, but the old approach of getting everyone in a stilted, artificial environment is unnecessary. Thankfully, there is a way to encourage bonding in your workplace in a way that feels more natural — and the good news is anyone can do it!

Below, we’ll discuss why it may be a good idea to ditch the old-school notion of team building and focus instead on team bonding.

Table of contents
Team building vs. team bonding: What’s the difference?
Why team bonding matters for your organization
3 reasons why team building activities fail
4 ways to encourage team bonding
Make team bonding a part of your company culture

Team building vs. team bonding: What’s the difference?

People often use “team building” and “team bonding” to mean the same thing, and the terms certainly go hand in hand, but for this article, we’d like to make a distinction:

  • Team building is a strategically planned activity that aims to bring coworkers together, improve skills, boost morale, and increase camaraderie within the group. Think escape rooms, lunch and learn sessions, and scavenger hunts. There is usually a specific objective, such as “practice effective communication” or “learn to work as a team to devise a solution under time pressure.”  Additionally, team building activities are often facilitated by outside organizations.
  • Team bonding tends to be organic. It’s what happens when hanging out by the watercooler, chatting during coffee breaks, or grabbing drinks after work. Team bonding is fostered by the team’s leaders, not directed by outside facilitators. As such, team bonding isn’t planned and structured like a team building activity is — though, yes, team bonding should happen during well-executed team building activities!

Why team bonding matters for your organization

Team bonding can improve performance. 

In one Finnish study, researcher Kaisa Henttonen and two colleagues found that the more connections there were within a team of employees, the more efficient and productive the team was.

Close relationships are essential to happiness and health.

In the Harvard Study of Adult Development, one of the longest studies of adult life, researchers found that close relationships have the biggest effect on happiness levels — more than money or fame. They found that having high-quality relationships is good for your health, and loneliness is so damaging that those who experience it at chronic levels tend to live shorter lives. 

Since most of us will spend upwards of 40 years working full-time, it makes sense to nourish work relationships as we will spend much of our lives around our coworkers.

Employees who feel they belong are less likely to quit.

In the report “The Value of Belonging at Work,” researchers at BetterUp Labs surveyed more than 1,700 full-time employees and found that when employees have a strong sense of belonging, they:

  • Are 50% less likely to quit
  • Are more likely to recommend their company
  • Take 75% fewer sick days

Help your employees feel like they belong by encouraging team bonding, and they’ll be much more likely to show up to work.

3 reasons why team building activities fail

Okay, now that we’ve seen why team bonding is good for your company, let’s examine why those fancy team building activities everyone seems to be planning sometimes don’t pay off.

#1 It can be kind of weird and embarrassing.

An introvert’s worst nightmare is to be put on the spot, or have to get up and do something in front of a gawking audience of peers. It’s really not motivating for someone to be put through something so uncomfortable for them — and it could be avoided with a clearer understanding of different attitudes within the team so that a more tailored approach can be developed. 

People are not “one size fits all,” as evidenced by human analytics, and this is crucial in the future of work — where we can effectively design teams suited to their roles and each other based on intrinsic attitudes.

Some team building exercises are designed to get people out of their comfort zone — think survival exercises or a talent show. These can be fun for some, and getting individuals out of their comfort zone can be stimulating and rewarding on a personal and professional level. However, this can truly strike fear into the hearts of shy folk, or those with a genuine fear of public speaking. The fallout from that is the intended development might only really benefit the outgoing extroverted, while others will be left feeling like outsiders.

A team event like going for coffee or lunch is different from a planned team building exercise — there’s nothing wrong with socializing, and it can really help the team dynamic to find common ground. The more casual, the better. And no one will feel too exposed or pressured.

Prioritizing these team bonding experiences can actually help the introverts on your team to feel more comfortable to participate in those planned team building activities, so it really is a win-win.

#2 It can be used in place of getting to the real issues.

Sometimes, for whatever reason, a team just doesn’t get along. It could be a personality clash, it could be a series of misunderstandings that manifest into something much greater, it could be a workplace bully.

It can seem that there is an expectation that after a team building day, all the problems are fixed and everyone is suddenly dynamic and energized. Sadly, it’s a bit like cold tablets: If anything, it just treats the symptoms for a short time, and the real virus remains.

A team with problems is a team where individuals perhaps haven’t felt heard, and throwing them together to “sort it out” is unlikely to give them the “a-ha” moment that team leaders might be expecting. 

If you’ve built a team that doesn’t gel, you will need a tool to work out the common working ground, and where individuals can complement and appreciate each other based on their set of skills, experience and attitudes. With the power of people analytics, you unlock the ability to foster a deeper understanding of how others approach their work (or, match candidates to teams with something much deeper than a resume from the get-go).

Before chucking them in the deep end of worn-out escape room dysphoria, take the time to have a discussion with each person, and see where paths of mutual respect can be forged.

Our twenty years of research has allowed us to really get inside the mind of individuals, and our analysis and suite of tools is perfect for putting together profiles of each team member, where core work attitudes and motivations will be illuminated. 

We know that every person has elements that are unique and incredibly valuable in a complementary team, and we can help drive understanding between team members and the way they work together.

#3 It’s so irregular that it can’t make a difference.

Team building events tend to happen when time, budget and calendars all magically align — so, maybe once a year if you’re lucky. They will never be the silver bullet that fixes underlying cultural issues within teams and the business. It’s simply not enough.

One of the biggest strengths of any company lies in their effective, high-performance teams, and it is vital that you work toward a cohesive, complementary team in the recruitment process. But, how will you know the right fit? Well, it comes back to that tool we mentioned earlier: Fingerprint for Success!

Our toolkit isn’t just for individual entrepreneurs, it is a critical engine for improving culture and building effective teams right from the start, or detecting issues in an existing team (and righting the future course for them).

4 ways to encourage team bonding

Again, not to rag on team building exercises (they can be useful!), but if you want to be relieved of the pressure of planning intricate activities, focus instead on creating a culture where team bonding can happen organically.

How? Here are four ideas:

#1 Create psychological safety

Fostering psychological safety is crucial if you want your team to be productive and to have healthy coworker relationships. It removes shame (a relationship-destroyer) by creating a culture where failure is okay.

What is psychological safety? The term was introduced by Harvard researcher Amy Edmondson, who, in her book The Fearless Organization, defines it as "a climate in which people are comfortable expressing and being themselves.” 

According to Edmondson’s book, there are three steps you can take to create psychological safety in your workplace:

  • Set the stage - Help your team understand where you are and what’s at stake in this specific situation. Setting the stage involves framing problems in a way that indicates there is an opportunity for growth; for example, instead of framing failures as an indication that someone did something wrong, help your team understand that failures will happen, and whether they were preventable or not, you main focus is always to learn from them, not punish people because of them.
  • Invite participation - It takes courage to speak up. Edmondson recommends two behaviors to encourage participation from your team. The first is situational humility, which means acknowledging your shortcomings and letting your team know that you don’t have all the answers. The second is proactive inquiry, which means asking good questions. 
  • Respond productively - This part is crucial because you’re asking your team to be vulnerable. Reacting angrily just because you don’t like someone’s answer will destroy any psychological safety you were trying to build. So if and when they come to you with negative feedback or a truth that hurts, it’s important that you show appreciation by thanking them for voicing their opinion or concern.

Additionally, Edmondson points out that if the information you receive involves a clear violation, then it is appropriate to discipline accordingly — and you don’t have to worry about undermining psychological safety. She writes in The Fearless Organization: "Psychological safety is reinforced rather than harmed by fair, thoughtful responses to potentially dangerous, harmful, or sloppy behavior."

#2 Host social events

Okay, I know I said earlier that team building is planned, whereas team bonding is not. But social events, unlike team building activities, are less structured. Where a team building activity has a clear objective or desired performance outcome, social events have no objective other than to be social.

So whether that’s a potluck every Wednesday or a Happy Hour every Friday, hosting social events creates an atmosphere that encourages team bonding. Sometimes, it’s easier to get to know a coworker when it’s a non-work-related context.

#3 Design shared spaces

It’s tough to collaborate if everyone is confined to their cubicle and afraid of being reprimanded for socializing. Creativity often arises from a flash of inspiration derived from a spontaneous conversation. To encourage team bonding, consider creating a shared space where coworkers can mingle and chat. 

When digital news outlet Quartz moved into its new office, it put thought into the way design affects work. By incorporating mixed-use shared spaces into its open-plan office, Quartz encouraged its employees to take new paths, sit by coworkers they wouldn’t usually sit beside, and have chance encounters that could spark new ideas.
And if you’re a remote team that can’t physically get together, create opportunities online for spontaneous collaboration:

  • Use Slack? Install the Donut app, which will randomly introduce you to teammates you haven’t met yet and encourage you to grab a donut, coffee, or lunch (even virtually!). Another fun feature of the app is that you can choose the “lottery” setting and set up something like a CEO lunch roulette, where each week, a new team member gets to grab a meal with the CEO. 
  • You could also try the Water Cooler Trivia app. It’s a weekly quiz sent to you and your teammates via Slack to foster fun conversations.

#4 Struggle together

Research shows that adversity creates strong bonds. One study led by Markus Heinrichs and Bernadette von Dawans at the University of Freiburg found that stressful experiences (in the study, it was public speaking followed by mental arithmetic) increased prosocial behavior, such as trust, trustworthiness, and sharing.

Now, of course, I am not advocating for you to intentionally inflict stress on your team so that they bond. Rather, I’m encouraging you to be transparent and vulnerable with them so that instead of feeling isolated when things are stressful at work, everyone can come together and shoulder each other’s burdens. 

For example, if you find out that a vendor fell through at the last minute, and you don’t think you’ll be able to pull off the big conference you’d been planning, instead of sweeping it under the rug, bring it to your team. Doing so will build trust, as it shows you’re willing to be open with them. Plus, it’ll allow them to brainstorm and work together to find a solution.

If you’ve built a psychologically safe workplace like we talked about above, then being transparent and vulnerable with your team should come naturally.

Make team bonding a part of your company culture

There’s a time and a place for planned team building activities, but if you want to create an engaged workforce that performs at its best every day, bake team bonding into the culture at your company.

Team bonding happens when we understand our differences and celebrate our strengths! To find out your team’s unique motivations, sign up for our free F4S assessment.

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