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

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.


Originally posted at

A Letter to the Laid Off

If the term “laid off” now describes you, then let me begin with a heartfelt and sincere expression of empathy that was likely absent from the impersonal form letter notifying you of the elimination of your job:

I am so sorry.

I know how it feels, and that’s why I am writing to you now.

Getting laid off is a disorienting, twilight experience. Like getting fired, a layoff suddenly throws the future into darkness, as the sun sets on one’s place in the productive and financially secure world of the  working. At the same time, it isn’t the same as getting fired, and there are enough rays of light still visible to be pointed out by others with the words “it could be worse.”

They are right, of course. Getting fired is orders of magnitude worse, I know. But whereas the experience of getting fired is red with hot anger and pain, getting laid off (as I was eight months ago) is a gray, formless fog of confused, conflicted emotions. One minute, there is the fearful drumbeat of “I’ve got to find a new job!” Then, the gratitude of the financial soft-landing and paid time at home that comes with a severance package. But that gratitude isn’t strong enough to turn back the waves of self-doubt that soon are crashing against you: “If the company who knew you and your work after all these years didn’t think you were worth keeping, why would somebody who doesn’t?”

After talking to many others who have walked (or are now walking) the road of the reorged, I know my experience of finding my way through the fog is common. With that in mind, allow me to share a few words of encouragement and warning to remember.

Fear is a liar

The fight with the fear of losing your paycheck begins within the first 24 hours of being told “your position has been eliminated.” As soon as the numbing effect of shock subsides, the limbic system within our brains kicks into high gear, pumping our system with all the worry-facilitating cortisol our body can produce. The primitive part of ourselves that is primed to detect mortal danger and drive us to avoid hunger and privation at all costs is powerful … and most likely wrong.

Contrary to what your fears are saying, your situation is not likely dire. Though it feels like it, you have not been cast out of the safe protection of the corporate tribe and out into the cold desolation to die unemployed. As you now are painfully aware, that warm feeling of predictable safety known as “job security” was only an illusion. You weren’t safe before, and those still employed in the cubicles and offices around you aren’t any more safe now.

In matters like this, we tend to think pessimistically, as in “with my luck, this is going to be awful.” In reality, there hasn’t been a better time for this to happen to you. According to the most recent numbers from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national unemployment rate is at 3.8%. Not only is that the lowest unemployment rate in nearly 20 years, but it is also only the second time we have reached that low figure since the Beatles were still a group thing.

Why does the unemployment rate matter to you? Simple: you have become a free agent right when the labor market is at a historic peak seller’s market. But, as with any opportunity worth taking, you will only be able to seize it if you punch fear in its lying face. Ignore fear’s screams to grab ahold of the first piece of employment drift wood that comes floating your way. Calmly assess how much time your financial situation will allow you to tread water, and then do that. Reorient your thinking from “I’ve got to avoid drowning!” to “Where do I want to sail to next and where are the ships that will take me there?” Then start purposefully swimming in that direction.

That is what Kristi Piehl did. Today, Kristi is the founder and CEO of Media Minefield, a public relations firm that employs nearly two-dozen and has been named one of Minneapolis/St. Paul’s “Best Places to Work” multiple times. But, back around Christmas in 2008, Kristi was a 2-time Emmy-winning veteran television reporter of 12 years … who had just been abruptly laid off from her hometown station. For someone who was enjoying the successes of being at the top of her game in her self-professed dream job, the shock to Kristi’s system was severe: “I thought I was at the place that I was going to be for the rest of my career, and that was the shock.”

When I asked Kristi recently about her experience of getting thrown out of her career without warning, here’s what she said:

[B]ecause my career had taken over my life, I was too afraid to make any changes … Had I kept my job, I’m confident I would’ve worked in TV news until I got a cake, a watch and an on-air retirement good-bye. I would’ve missed out on finding out what I’m really supposed to do. I wouldn’t have the privilege of offering jobs to others.

Take it from people who have been where you are: with your luck, this could end up better than you could possibly guess.

Take it personally

I know this sounds odd, but let me explain. I don’t mean to allow hurt feelings and wounded pride to curdle into an anger aimed at the people who did this to you. Not only does that do nothing productive; holding onto anger is bad for your health.

What I mean by “take it personally” is this: allow yourself to go through the emotional process. Give yourself time and space to decompress. Suddenly losing your job is a traumatic experience. Someone recently described it to me as feeling like they are going through another divorce. It is a pretty good metaphor. Getting laid off combines the feeling of rejection by someone who once said you were the one they wanted with the sadness of “why me?” mixed with the anger of “how could you?”

And like a divorce, the result isn’t just an end to a single relationship. Just like a change in marital status, the change in employment status has effects that ripple across an entire web of other relationships. Regardless of the reason, saying goodbye to colleagues you like and enjoyed working with is always a painful experience. There’s no way of getting around it: when your place at a company is gone, so too is your connection to a lot of the people you worked with. Don’t ignore these feelings of grief. Process them. Feel them. Deal with them. Only then will you find the stable emotional footing necessary to present your best self to the next employer lucky enough to now have the opportunity to hire you.

Be excellent and generous

Once you’ve stiff-armed fear and untangled your emotions, you will be ready to start working towards your next move.  If it has been awhile since you last were in the market for a job, know this: times have changed. The key to seizing this layoff opportunity doesn’t lie with polishing your resume and attending a networking mixer. These stale tactics will just leave you as one more applicant in a sea of them, increasingly to be sorted by resume-scanning software long before a human being gets to assess your value.

In this modern age of hyper-connectivity, ubiquitous information, and cheap computing tools, anyone can level-up their skills, showcase their work, and share it with the world. Make no mistake: Excellent work is always in demand , especially in this environment where companies are trying to outdo each other to win the “war for talent.”

That’s where being generous comes in. Generosity is rare, unexpected, and appreciated. By using your new free time to donate your best work to others, you build a proven track record of great work while also enriching others in your network. Giving of yourself like this rarely goes unrewarded. In combining excellence and generosity, you will have built for yourself a professional asset of great value and infinitely more attractive than a resume optimized for the latest HR algorithm.

Who knows? You might even find that in doing so, you uncover an idea for starting a business of your own.


Originally posted at