Primary Task: The "North Star" of Teamwork
Marisa Guerin PhD - May 4, 2018
"Team-building" is a meaningful activity for nonprofit and business organizations that value collaboration. Whether they use that specific label or not, many work groups hold retreats or training events in which the purpose is to improve the teamwork among the members.
For my readers who are managers, leaders, facilitators, or consultants, I'd like to make the argument that the most authentic framework for designing such an event is the primary task, or core mission of the group. I'll explain why below. By contrast, I've observed that team development retreats are frequently planned using methods that focus mainly on the people and their relationships with one another. Under some circumstances that can be a very appropriate choice, but I don't think it is true most of the time.
What do I mean when I reference programs that focus on people/relationships rather than task/mission? Relationship-oriented retreats might include, for example, programs using instrument-measured personal styles of any kind; sessions built around T-group or group relations methodologies; sessions that engage teams in adventure learning or service learning; training in communication skills or behavioral norms, etc.
The choice to focus a team-building event in this way hinges on the belief that the source of higher performance, or the nature of its blockage, is located in the motivation, knowledge, communication, trust, etc among the members. It is this assumption that I believe is questionable, overlooking the powerful effects on team performance that are rooted in clarity about goals, priorities, roles, and their implications for collaboration.
A better guiding framework, or "north star", for highly effective teamwork is the primary task of the group, its fundamental purpose, and what that task is requiring of the team at this point in time. This is a subtle point, because the context of purpose, task, and roles DOES in fact influence individuals and their relationships in the workplace. Let me share a few reasons for proposing this shift in emphasis.
As a starting point, it's important to recognize that when people have joined an organization, whether they are employees or volunteers, their connection with one another is mediated by their common belonging to the organization itself -- its mission and work. Although good personal relationships are key to most people's satisfaction at work and are also the basis for trust and high performance, the reason these people are on this team in the first place is because of their common willingness to fulfill their roles on behalf of the organization. In other words: they individually and collectively have a job to do, and for a larger purpose. Assuming it's not a family or a friendship group, the members may come or go -- but the work that needs doing continues to define the nature of the team.
This is a potentially powerful bond. Worthy work is "reparative" in nature (*see reference below). It brings out the best in people, helps them deal with the normal ups and downs of the workplace, keeps them motivated despite tall odds. As an example, think of how electrical workers respond when they arrive from far and near to help a community that has had its power grid knocked out by an ice storm. The critical urgency of the work itself is the basis for high-performance teamwork, even among people who don't know one another very well. While everyday work in a business, school, hospital, or ministry may not ever be so dramatic, the mission of each organization contains some elements of social good, lofty or humble.
Tapping that common anchor point -- a shared, meaningful purpose to which all are committed -- is a reliable and a fair framework for team-building. This means starting with clarity about the purpose of the team and the organization as a whole, the value that the team member roles bring to that mission, and the importance of their unique and individual contributions.
When you base a team-building event on the importance and legitimacy of the team and its mission, you also set the natural context for activities that could be more personal in nature. However, it's equally possible that what the team really needs to work on together doesn't have much to do with their interpersonal relationships at all, but perhaps more about how work is organized, authorized, resourced, or connected to other units. If that is in fact the case, the team will feel impatient with interpersonal processes because they know that something else is more in need of attention. This mis-match is what can give team-building events a bad name, especially for more senior groups. Let the "north star" of primary task be the guide for how to deepen or strengthen the teamwork; it carries its own validation.
In addition, using the primary task as a context for team-building retreats appropriately respects the autonomy of each team member and the boundaries that they have the right to set about the degree of their personal engagement with others in work relationships. This is important -- as you may know, some very effective team-building techniques require vulnerability, self-disclosure, or interpersonal risk. Such methods should be undertaken freely, with the informed willingness of the team members. Obligating team members to engage in sensitive interpersonal dynamics without giving them the option to set their own boundaries is an ethical breach, not to mention likely unsuccessful.
Grounding a team-building event in the mission, plans and goals of the organization is a practical tack to take. It lets you calibrate the relationship-building aspects of the retreat, helps you to know how much is enough, and how it ties into near term goals. Clarity about the imperatives flowing from the work of the team can both legitimize more intensive methods if they are called for, as well as provide guardrails to avoid infringing on private territory. And if my hunch is right, the most meaningful growth in the trust and collaboration of team members will be the natural by-product of their hard work when they succeed in tackling challenging, worthwhile work together.
So remember the "north star":
"What's our shared purpose, our primary task?" and,
"What can we do to be more effective in accomplishing this mission together?"
* "Reparative" = intrinsically healing, restorative; this concept is elaborated in the classic reference "The Workplace within: Psychodynamics of Organizational Life" by Larry Hirschhorn, MIT Press, 1988.