Exercises designed to build trust and rapport are often touted as the key to business team building and improved business skills. Such exercises—from falling backwards into the arms of teammates to competing in scavenger hunts—can be effective at onboarding new employees, overcoming cultural barriers, and strengthening existing teams.
But not all business team building efforts need to focus on group activities. In fact, organizations can also strengthen teams by encouraging individuals to engage in private reflection, writes Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino in her 2018 book Rebel Talent: Why It Pays to Break the Rules at Work and in Life.
The Value of Self-Reflection
In 2011, the Indian information-technology company Wipro was experiencing high turnover in its business-process-outsourcing division. Gino and her colleagues Dan Cable (London Business School) and Brad Staats (University of North Carolina) talked to Wipro employees to try to figure out why so many were quitting after just a couple months. Many of them explained that they felt frustrated because they were not able to be themselves at work. The company “was asking them to strip away their identities and not allowing them to play to their strengths,” Gino writes.
With this in mind, Gino, Cable, and Staats designed a study designed to determine whether encouraging new employees to engage in self-reflection during the onboarding process would improve their satisfaction with their jobs. The researchers had some of Wipro’s incoming employees engage in a new onboarding process in which they spent half an hour thinking about what made them unique, what their strengths were, and how they could be more authentic at work. Other employees went through Wipro’s typical onboarding process, which focused on rules, regulations, and the history of the firm. A third group focused on the company for an hour.
Checking in with these employees seven months later, the researchers found that those who engaged in the self-reflection exercise during onboarding were significantly more likely to still be working for Wipro than those in the other two groups. They also achieved higher performance and reported being more committed to their jobs. These employees were more likely to “tailor their jobs to their strengths,” Gino writes—for example, by “using their own judgment and words” when dealing with customers rather than following the company’s script word for word. Just an hour of self-reflection during onboarding was mutually beneficial to employees and to the firm.
The Downside of Inauthenticity
The results of the Wipro study suggest that successful business team building requires more than just building strong interpersonal bonds between coworkers. For teams and organizations to thrive, employees need to feel comfortable revealing their true selves at work.
When we try to blend in at work and disguise our true selves, we are bound to feel inauthentic. Abundant research studies reveal that inauthenticity is terrible for our physical and emotional health, writes Gino in Rebel Talent. Whether we’re hiding our sadness behind a smile, holding back on sharing ideas at work, or feeling out of place at a workplace team-building event, feeling inauthentic will cost us. It’ll also cost our organization, in terms of high turnover and low productivity.
3 Keys to Business Team Building
How can organizations promote business team building through deeper employee engagement? Here are a few suggestions, adapted from Rebel Talent:
- Make work novel. It’s hard to stay engaged in your work when it’s completely predictable. The fast-food chain Pal’s Sudden Service, which has stores in Tennessee and Virginia, keeps work fresh by switching up the order in which employees move through the various stations every day. By keeping workers on their toes, Pal’s keeps turnover low. As Gino writes, “there’s room for variety in even the most rote job.”
- Encourage dissent. Traditional team-building techniques can discourage people from speaking up when they disagree or see a problem emerging. Chicago-based money-management firm Ariel Investments promotes constructive dissent by assigning a “devil’s advocate” at meetings, according to Gino. The person in that role is in charge of arguing the opposite of the prevailing view and opening up helpful debate.
- Give people space to be authentic. Every week at his award-winning restaurant Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy, Chef Massimo Bottura asks members of his staff to cook a dish from their own culture. The cooks share stories about their dishes, which reveal their passions and history. When we encourage team members to be authentic, we bring out their true strengths—and strengthen the organization as a result.
What effective strategies for business team building have you used in your organization?