They Who Laugh, Last!
June, 1999
Paul E. McGhee, PhD

Team Building
Creating a Team Identity or Team Spirit

"Laughter is the shortest distance between two people." Victor Borge

Most companies emphasize the importance of building a team spirit of team identity at all levels of the organization. The idea is that if individual employees feel like a meaningful part of a larger whole, they are more likely to take the initiative to do whatever is necessary to achieve the goals of the team. This helps assure the success of the team, and successful teams mean a successful company. The challenge of creating dynamic and effective teams that work well together has become greater in recent years, however, as the employees composing teams have become more culturally diverse.

All managers soon learn that you can set a group of employees up to work as a team, but that doesn't mean they will FEEL like a team. With the broad range of cultural backgrounds, personalities and working styles represented on the team, conflicts and differences of opinion are bound to occur. This can trigger cycles of negativity and complaining, which generally serve to weaken morale and team spirit and reduce productivity (see next month's Newsletter for a discussion of this issue). Managers need to be prepared for this problem and act proactively to create a management style and work environment conducive to strengthening team spirit.

Many companies set up annual weekend retreats or other "fun" events to boost the bonding and sense of camaraderie that generally marks effective teams. The retreat provides an opportunity for people to escape work-related pressures and just relax. Specific fun activities are planned up with the purpose of assuring that the desired bonding process will occur.

Companies realize that this is the kind of atmosphere that best builds the kind of close relationships required to enable fellow employees to work together harmoniously toward a common goal (even on the tough days) when they get back to the office. Thus, even companies which don't normally encourage a lighter, fun atmosphere on the job do recognize the power of fun and laughter to create team spirit and strengthen a team identity.

The Problem with Team-Building Retreats

The problem with weekend retreats is precisely the fact that it is a retreat from the usual work atmosphere and approach to relating to fellow employees. Once they get back in the office, they know that they must leave their sense of humor and the idea of making work fun at the door. Employees are expected to keep the team spirit generated by the retreat alive the rest of the year--but abandon the kinds of behaviors that generated that feeling on the retreat. The predictable outcome is that the emotional connection between employees is quickly lost as they once again get caught up in the daily pressures and heavy work load that automatically go with their job.

When a company realizes that employees who bring a lighter attitude toward their work 1) want to do their jobs well, 2) do not use humor and fun on the job as an excuse for goofing off, 3) generally use good judgment about when any kind of humor or laughter is appropriate, 4) can retain a high level of professionalism and competence while keeping their sense of humor, and 5) become more skilled at sustaining a frame of mind conducive to peak performance and quality service, the resistance to allowing humor and a sense of fun on the job out of the retreat site and into the office generally disappears.

Companies like Southwest Airlines and Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream are the best known models for putting fun to work, but a growing number of successful companies are bringing a lighter attitude to the workplace every year. These companies have no trouble keeping team spirit alive throughout the year.

Even managers at IBM have experimented in recent years with the idea of making work fun. In 1996, the manager of a new IBM sales unit (consisting of 75 sales people) created an orchestra out of a bunch of musically inept sales personnel and had a 15-minute "concert" each morning in the office. The concerts always generated a lot of laughs, and each salesperson hit a gong when they made their first sale of the day. They also moved a racehorse bearing their picture out of a starting cage. According to the originator of this idea, "I needed to bring a very diverse set of people together around a common goal . . . I had to make it fun." Her unit's sales rose 30% that year.1 This approach gave the manager a company-wide reputation as a real motivator of employees.

1. Lancaster, H. Your career may be a laugh track away from the fast track. Wall Street Journal, March 26, 1996, p. B1.


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