A team building activity in the workplace is often met with an eye roll, but a team of organizational researchers is taking a hard look at such exercises in order to determine their best use—or if a given intervention is needed at all.

The researchers’ published article in the Academy of Management Annals defines what makes an intervention effective and rounds up dozens of popular approaches. But more than a review, the article’s primary goal is to establish the need for an evolved approach in the use of team development interventions.

According to Marissa Shuffler, assistant professor in Clemson’s psychology department and co-author of the study, there’s no one prescription for every ailment just as there’s no one-size-fits-all intervention for building a better team at work.

“If we want to get the most out of our teams, we need to provide the correct combination of interventions at the correct time and place,” Shuffler said. “Before anyone can do that, there has to be a better understanding of each and every approach to team interventions.”

Shuffler Class 01

Marissa Shuffler discusses teamwork state profiles with a group of graduate and undergraduate students.
Image Credit: Clemson University

The total review covered over 500 articles, half of which were devoted to team training and team building, by far the most used interventions in organizations. The remaining articles examined topics such as team debriefing, team leadership and team coaching, just to name a few.

According to Shuffler, the key to success in implementing one of these many interventions is to not do so blindly. Defining what needs to be improved, who needs to be involved and when and where the intervention takes place ahead of time can make the difference in choosing the correct route for improvement.

“We don’t want to just jump right into the how, which is the thing many people in organizations want to do,” Shuffler said. “One of these interventions won’t fix everything, but multiple interventions that fit together could potentially address all the team needs, so getting a clear picture of what needs to be fixed first can make all the difference.”

The research is part of Shuffler’s National Science Foundation CAREER award and is being used to identify factors and design interventions that improve teamwork across disciplines, including health care. She is currently testing such interventions at Greenville Health System, so the example of team development among a surgical team is a situation she knows well.

Deborah DiazGranados

Deborah DiazGranados, co-author of the study and faculty in both the school of medicine and psychology department at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Image Credit: Deborah DiazGranados

In the case of a surgical team that has never worked together, a team charter that establishes norms and goals might be required along with a list of required work supports gleaned from a work design analysis. The team may also opt for team debriefing to gauge the effectiveness of team communication from start to finish during a surgery.

While an intervention built around a team charter, work design analysis and team debrief may work for that particular team, it shouldn’t become an automatic recipe to “fix” every surgical team, according to Deborah DiazGranados, co-author of the study and faculty in both the school of medicine and psychology department at Virginia Commonwealth University.

While it may be tempting to try to apply what’s worked for one group to another, it can be misguided to do so in a dynamic, complex industry such as health care. DiazGranados said amidst constantly changing policies and quality improvement initiatives, being mindful about choosing the correct intervention benefits both patients and health care providers.

“The ultimate goal in health care is to save and improve the health of patients,” DiazGranados said, “but team development interventions can also improve employee well-being, reduce burnout and create more effective teams. These interventions ultimately affect the health of patients.”

Salas Maynard

Study co-authors Eduardo Salas of Rice University (left) and M. Travis Maynard of Colorado State University.
Image Credit: Eduardo Salas, M. Travis Maynard

DiazGranados said that organizations should always prioritize efforts to improve team work, but for the sake of all involved the team should get to know its needs first. After doing that homework, it becomes less likely that a team conducts an intervention just for its own sake.

“Practitioners should understand the value of evidence-based decision making when it comes to developing the human capital of an organization,” DiazGranados said. “The intentionality should be based on data.”

The article, “Developing, Sustaining and Maximizing Team Effectiveness: An Integrative, Dynamic Perspective of Team Development Interventions,” was co-authored by Shuffler, DiazGranados, M. Travis Maynard of Colorado State University, and Eduardo Salas of Rice University.