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Whatever You Do, Don’t Build Your Team!

Whatever You Do, Don’t Build Your Team!

I have been thinking about one of the most common phrases associated with teams: “team building.” I don’t know about you, but I have an automatic, skeptical response when I hear that phrase. Some of that comes from too many experiences of team building activities that fail to engage teams in their real challenges. These activities can be fun and interesting, and even lead to great conversations, but too often they don’t have a lasting impact on how a team functions together over time.

I’m realizing, though, that some of my skepticism has to do with the word itself. I just don’t like the metaphor of “building” a team. And, because I believe that the language we use is important, and actively shapes how we perceive and think about an issue, I want to offer a different metaphor for you to reflect on.

What if, instead of a construction project, a team was a garden? What if, instead of building it, your job was to cultivate it, to grow it? When I play with the metaphor in this way, three important shifts happen in my thinking and perspective. These shifts have to do with: 1) the value of individual team members; 2) the presence and engagement of the leader; and 3) the perception of the work itself.

Value of the individual team members

There’s something about the metaphor of building, seeing a team as a construction project, that implies that the pieces (i.e. team members) are interchangeable and easily replaced. Think about it: construction materials are commodities, and often a builder will search out the least expensive source for the materials she needs. Even if price isn’t the driving factor, there’s a sense that, hey, tile is tile. If Home Depot doesn’t have what I want, maybe I’ll find it at Lowe’s.

centering practicesIn a garden, however, the different elements that drive success are all unique and necessary. Water, sunlight, soil, fertilizer – each of these brings a different quality to the garden, and each plant requires a different balance of them in order to thrive. Each plant itself offers something unique to the garden as well, whether it’s fall color, or interesting shape in the winter, or pollen for the bees in the summer. If any one of these elements is missing, the garden is diminished.

This isn’t to say that you won’t sometimes have a team member who just needs to be replaced. But when you replace a plant in a garden, there’s often some recognition on the part of the gardener that his actions contributed to the situation. Maybe he put it in the wrong place, and the plant needed more sun than it was getting. Or maybe he didn’t give it enough water when it was first planted, and so it never established a strong root system. When you replace a piece of tile in a construction project, it’s because the tile is defective. The different metaphors invite completely different ways of thinking about the value of individual team members.

Presence and engagement of the leader

The second way my thinking shifts when I change my metaphor of teams is related to the presence and engagement of the leader. If I’m a builder, there’s a way in which I see myself as separate from the team. I manipulate the building materials to create the end result. Often, building projects are contracted out, and I’m not even that involved except at a very high level.

In a garden, on the other hand, the gardener has to be intimately involved in the project of cultivation. Success requires a regular presence, ongoing attention, and participation. (I can’t tell you how many house plants I’ve killed through neglect.) The gardener is part of the ecosystem, and her actions matter. The work of a garden, of course, can also be contracted out. But I will say that in my experience, the most beautiful and riotous gardens are almost always tended by the gardener-in-residence, and are labors of love.

hands with seedling2The work of growing a team requires a similar presence and attention and, dare I say it, love. Rather than contracting with an outside vendor to conduct a training or conflict styles assessment, a leader needs to truly engage with team members, pay attention to their needs, and respond accordingly. He also needs to participate fully, whatever shape the process of team development takes.

Perception of the work itself

The most important way that a change in metaphor influences my thinking about team development has to do with the scope of the work itself. If I’m building a construction project, my work is done when the project is over. The new office building is complete, everybody has moved in, and my attention now goes to the next project.

The work is never done in a garden. Seasons change, droughts occur, plants die, weeds grow. A neglected garden soon becomes an eyesore, with plants competing for space, withering from lack of care, or overcome by weeds.

Teams, too, need constant tending. Even great teams will eventually change, as old members leave and new members arrive, or small sources of friction are allowed to fester. Too often, team development is a one-time event, and even the best one-time event can’t grow a team. Growth only happens over time.

So, the next time you think about developing your team, notice the language you’re using. What’s your metaphor? How is that metaphor shaping your perception? How is it influencing what you see as possible? And finally, what happens if you pick a different metaphor? You might be surprised at how your thinking changes.

What about you? What is your favorite metaphor for developing your team? What new ideas occur to you when you think about your team as a garden rather than a construction project? I’d love to hear your comments!

Photo of flowers courtesy of OiMax, Flickr Creative Commons

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