Team Building: How to Get Real Results from Team Building Activities

Team Building

Key points

  • Team building interventions have three essential characteristics which clarify the confusion around the term and help differentiate it from other interventions aimed at teams;
  • Team building interventions improve team members’ feelings and team interactions, but don’t have a considerable effect on team performance;
  • Effective team building activities are not only fun, but must also be aligned with the objective of the session.

Being a manager isn’t easy. Along with ensuring the team delivers, you are also expected to make sure that team members get along well and are happy as part of the team. Team building activities are often recommended as a solution to keep the team’s satisfaction high. Since everyone seems to be partaking in team building activities, and teams expect them as par for the course, you might see this as a potential option for your team. But before investing in team building, there are a few important questions that we will try to answer in this summary: Do team building activities have any impact on the team? What’s the difference between an effective team building activity and one that’s just a waste of time?

What is team building?

While everyone talks about team building, what it means isn’t always clear, and that makes it difficult to study its effectiveness. Researchers who study the topic show that there is no such thing as one definition of “team building”. Instead, the term refers to a category of interventions aimed at teams. What these interventions have in common is:

  1. Objective: improving a team’s functioning in general, by developing interpersonal relations, clarifying roles, or solving existent problems
  2. Method: mostly informal team building activities like games and physical exercises, as opposed to sitting in a classroom and discussing a topic
  3. Location: usually a different one to where the team works (e.g. in nature, in an events hall).

Team building interventions might sound similar to teamwork training, another type of intervention aimed at helping teams work better together. However, the two are different; teamwork training is:

  • focused on building specific skills (e.g. teaching team members how to formulate an action plan)
  • more formal and systematic (e.g. the trainer develops specific objectives for each session and evaluates if they were achieved)
  • usually held in the same location where the team works (e.g. a conference room in the office).

For more information on teamwork training, including benefits it has and how to make it more effective, check out our previous evidence summary.

Which of these two is right for your team? If you know the specific need of your team and you want to provide focused support to meet that need, then teamwork training may be best. However, if you’re looking for an intervention to improve the general functioning of the team and to raise team members’ satisfaction, then team building might be better.

What’s the evidence for team building?

So now that we know what team building is, let’s understand the evidence. In 2009, researchers from the USA published a meta-analysis based on data from over 1500 teams. The meta-analysis investigated the effects of team building on different aspects of the team:

  • team members’ feelings about the team and their colleagues
  • team interactions that help it solve its task (e.g. how it communicates, collaborates or manages conflicts)
  • team performance (how the team’s achievements compare to the expected outputs).

What is team building good for?

The meta-analysis showed that people who participate in team building feel more positively about their team. This positive feeling is manifested in certain ways such as more trust for their fellow team members, more satisfaction that they’re part of the team, and more confidence that the team will achieve its objectives.

Furthermore, teams that go through team building sessions have better interactions: they communicate, coordinate and manage conflicts better. These processes are key in accomplishing the team’s task.

By now, you might think “team building is great!”. However, team building didn’t significantly improve team performance. Despite better communication and more trust being associated with enhanced team performance, team building itself doesn’t bring any considerable direct benefits in terms of performance. The reason for this might be that performance depends on other factors besides how the team interacts, such as team members’ competence or managerial support.

Team Building

When does a team building session work best?

Within team building interventions, some are more effective than others. What seems to make a difference is the aim of the session: team building activities focused on setting goals or clarifying roles bring the most benefits. Setting goals refers to defining both individual and team objectives, and planning what actions to take to turn the objectives into reality. Clarifying roles means team members discuss what is and isn’t within their own responsibility and they understand their duties better.

On the other hand, team building activities focused on improving interpersonal relations or solving existing problems bring slightly smaller, but still relevant benefits. Improving interpersonal relations sees team members work on their trust in each other and building connections on a more personal level. Solving problems means identifying what doesn’t work in the team and planning on what to do to improve the situation.

Team Building

Besides the focus of the team building exercise, the team size can also have an impact on how effective such interventions are. When looking at large teams with over 10 members, the researchers found that these teams benefit much more from team building than smaller teams (with less than 10 members). The reason for this is that bigger teams might have more challenges to face than smaller teams. This leaves more room for improvement in the way they work, and team building activities supply some of the help that’s needed to function well together.

Takeaways for your practice

Team building is an effective intervention if you’re looking to improve the general functioning of your team. It is an activity that’s less formal and more fun than teamwork training, but if it follows an objective, it makes team members feel better and interact more effectively with each other. To gain the most benefit from team building, here are a few ideas:

  • Identify what the team needs: does it lack a specific skill linked to their work together (e.g. formulating an action plan) or are you looking for more general improvement? While the first case might be a better fit with teamwork training, the latter rather requires team building as a solution
  • Even if the benefits are more general, think of what the team building exercise needs to achieve to be effective. Especially in a new team, setting goals or clarifying roles might work best, but if your team’s situation requires r improving interpersonal relations or solving an existing problem, then focusing on one of these will likely work better. Don’t forget that people probably expect to have fun in a team building exercise, so find enjoyable activities that work towards these goals. Searching online for team building activities to do is fine as long as you compare them with the objectives and adapt them to fit the purpose. Asking an experienced facilitator for help to keep things engaging can also be a good idea
  • Explain the benefits of team building to the team and why, even though it’s fun, you still need to have some purposeful activities linked to a general objective. By setting their expectations, you will win over the sceptics, but also you won’t disappoint the enthusiasts.


Trustworthiness score

We critically evaluated the strength and quality of the study we used to inform this Evidence Summary. We found that the study design – a meta-analysis of studies with before-and-after measurement – is highly appropriate to demonstrate a causal relationship. Therefore we can conclude that it is shown that team building interventions have positive effects on team processes and team member’s affective outcomes.

Learn how we critically appraise studies to assign them a Trustworthiness Score.


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Reference:

Klein, C., DiazGranados, D., Salas, E., Le, H., Burke, C. S., Lyons, R., & Goodwin, G. F. (2009). Does team building work?. Small Group Research, 40(2), 181-222. DOI: 10.1177/1046496408328821

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