People often ask me why the focus of my training and consulting business is on teambuilding. “Isn’t that kind of a narrow specialty, given all the things you do?” they ask.
I believe everything is about teambuilding because if you define learning as behavioral change, then it’s clear that you need to train teams and work groups, not individuals. Otherwise, you might raise awareness for a topic but the behavioral change doesn’t stick.
Let’s look at some examples from my past experience:
- An individual manager needs to work on his communication and interpersonal skills. He is a command and control sort of manager with very little patience, and not only does he inspire fear in his direct reports but he doesn’t work well with the rest of the management team. Off he goes to training, and learns about active listening and “skillful discussion” (Peter Senge’s term for the process of creating shared meaning through a balanced blending of inquiry and advocacy). It all makes sense to him, but when he returns, he has a new vocabulary and some new concepts that don’t make sense to anyone else on the management team. He is more aware now, but making a genuine effort to change the way he communicates makes him feel silly in front of his teammates. Eventually, he goes right back to his old habits.
- One member of the team is single-handedly working against the diversity goals of the organization, and she doesn’t even seem to realize she’s doing it. Her discomfort with members of ethnic and racial groups other than her own comes out in subtle ways, noticed by others but not by herself. Management ships her off to diversity awareness training, and she comes to understand how the “micro-messages” she unconsciously sends to her teammates often tell them that she doesn’t value their contributions to the goals of the team. She returns with a new awareness, but as she tries to put that awareness into practice, no one else understands what she’s doing. She tries to talk about micro-messages when she finds herself on the receiving end of them, but everyone seems to think she’s being silly to focus on such small, subtle behaviors. “You’re too sensitive,” they tell her. She eventually gives up.
- One person on the team really doesn’t understand the concept of customer service. When a customer gets angry, he gets angry right back. Off he goes to customer service training, and returns with a new set of tools and techniques for defusing upset customers. But now that he is “enlightened”, he notices that his teammates aren’t so great at customer service either. He might have been the worst one of the bunch, but not by much in his opinion. He tries to talk to his teammates about how they might make some structural changes to improve service delivery, or how they might back each other up when a customer is upset, but no one is interested. They say things like, “Ooh, look how smart Peter is now that he’s gone to training.” Eventually, he feels like a fool for bringing up new ideas.
When you train the entire team or work group, employees are able to reinforce each other’s behavioral changes. Not only that, but enthusiasm for new ideas and new ways of doing things can be contagious and can spiral through a group, escalating everyone’s motivation toward positive change. Teammates can meet and talk about what they learned, sharing ideas and further processing them for specific job application. When a teammate slips into an old habit, another teammate can recognize and point out the lapse. When a teammate exhibits a positive new behavior, others can pat her on the back for it. And the behavioral change you’re seeking within the group can evolve into a new set of group norms, a new culture. Isn’t that what teambuilding is really about?