Team Building Semantics

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Semantics is the study of meaning. It comes from the Greek "semantikos", which means "giving signs". Wikipedia includes in its definition of the word that it "is often used in ordinary language to denote a problem of understanding that comes down to word selection or connotation". Well, have I got a big one for you.

Team building. There. I’;ve said it. Look at it, carefully. It provides a tight, careful description of what it denotes. So why do so many people get it wrong?

The phrase only has two words in it, yet the phrase gets used for things that miss out one or the other of these on a regular and frequent basis. Sometimes it gets used for things that contain either of the constituent words. Why is this?

Well, it’;s the "Xerox" effect, also known as the "Hoover" effect. Many years ago when the subject matter in question was in its infancy, something took root in people’;s minds and transposed a specific product onto the market as a whole. Photocopiers, no matter who the manufacturer is, are called xeroxes. Vacuum cleaners are hoovers, even when the technology is totally different and they are made by Dyson. "Team building" was not the provider’;s name of the first ever team away day event, but the circumstances in which it was formed became associated with it. Those circumstances involved a field, some equipment and a part physical, part cerebral challenge. I could not tell you what that was, but I’;m guess at raft building or something involving planks, a bucket and a pretended nuclear device. At least, I hope it was pretend.

So now, say those two magic words to most people and they immediately think of something that happens outside. They also tend to associate one or more adjectives to it such as boring, terrifying and pointless. So let’;s look at some typical events, available (albeit under slightly different activity names) from many team building suppliers nationally.

The first is a stalwart of many a team away day – quad biking. How does this fare against the term? Well, it’;s an individual sport. Forget attempts to give different colored helmets to people in an attempt to make it look like all the green ones are in the green team and so on. Sat on top of a powerful quad bike with all hills and mud to face, no-one cares about their team. They just want to have fun! Nothing wrong with that, but why say it is anything to do with teams? For that matter, why say it has anything to do with building either? Yes it’;ll be fun for those who like that sort of thing. Yes, it’;ll bring the group closer together, providing no-one has been forced to do it pretty much against their will that is. It’;ll be a great "college bonding" day. But team building? No.

A more recently popular option has been corporated drumming. Let’;s look at that. Team? Yes, absolutely. Not everyone will think this is a fantastic time, it’;s just too one-dimensional for that. But it is certainly team oriented. Building? No. It can purport to put across the message that harmony is good and everyone needs to play their part, but you could do that with a motivational poster featuring The Beatles or the London Symphony Orchestra and a nice tagline. Building is about using a structured process to make something bigger or better than it was before. Team building is about helping team members find more effective ways of working. Drumming is not ever going to offer that. Call it "team bonding" and I’;m happy. No semantical argument.

So, if you actually want team building rather than a college or team bonding session, check that (a) it actually involves some kind of teamwork and (b) it has a structured process capable of delivering team improvements back at work. The Greeks have a word for that. `Eυυννο.. It means smart.