The Science of Team Development – What Works?

Through a quick Google search, you can see a raft of team building options, focused primarily on team “bonding” and fun activities to boost morale – rock climbing, building bikes and competing in scavenger hunts! While these activities create a sense of fun and boost morale which is important to the success of a team, an article I read recently spoke to the science behind team development. The extent to which team development initiatives actually enhance team performance is a question I’ve often asked myself in the past.  This article has helped me to understand why this question isn’t that straightforward – not all interventions are created equal! So what works?

Two overarching categories of team development – team training and team building.  Understanding the science behind these two quite different interventions can help organisations to better utilise them. On one hand, team training focuses more on knowledge acquisition and practising the skills and attitudes required for effective performance.  Team training is most effective in preparing new teams by ensuring that the group has a shared understanding regarding their purposes, goals, and the behaviours necessary to work together effectively.

Team building on the other hand, has evolved over time from focusing just on interpersonal and social interactions to looking at how these can help the team achieve results.  Klein and colleagues (2009) looked at the impact of team building on team outcomes for 20 studies. All four approaches to team building they investigated were found to have a moderate effect on outcomes, with goal setting and role clarification being the strongest. In addition to this, team building had the strongest impact on affective and process outcomes. This article presents empirical evidence supporting team building and suggests that team building is most effective for teams that need clarification and better understanding of their roles in the team and with teams that already have experience working together. Further, having clear, challenging goals can improve team motivation and help work as a whole. There also needs to be a willingness to speak up in order to diagnose needs and outside facilitation is necessary (Shuffler et al., 2011). So it’s not just for dysfunctional teams, but teams that could do with clarity and perhaps a bit of re-energising!

The effectiveness of team development interventions depends on how well they meet the distinct needs of the team at the time. Team building is most effective for resolving team breakdowns and reducing conflict, and also for improving communication and trust within existing teams. On the other hand, team training is better for providing the knowledge and skills necessary for team work. To me, this means that those designing team development initiatives need to understand individual and team dynamics. As professionals in the area of HR and I/O Psychology, we need to better understand why and how our clients and organisations will benefit from team development. So how can we get to the heart of team issues and better diagnose their needs?

Shuffler, M.l., Diaz Granados, D., & Salas, E. (2011).  There’s a science for that: Team development interventions in organisation.  Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20(6), 365-372.


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