Overcoming the Problem of Team Islands
There are many reasons why companies arrange corporate events. One such reason is to overcome "team islands", a form of corporate dysfunction. Large-scale, offsite events can be used to help deal with that dysfunction, but they will only have a positive impact when certain basic guidelines are followed.
This article outlines the role corporate events can have in overcoming the problem of team islands, plus the types of actions that need to be taken before and after those corporate events.
What are Team Islands?
The phenomenon of "Team Islands" refers to the status of teams in the workplace (not on corporate events). Team Islands occur when:
- small teams work well together, but
- there are problems in the relationships between those teams.
In this context, the aim of offsite corporate events is to develop better working relationships between teams, and overcome any barriers that may be in place.
What causes Team Islands?
Team Islands are caused by the presence of markers or boundaries that divide people into separate groups.
A "marker" is a characteristics or feature of individuals that distinguish them from other people. Examples of markers that occur in the general population include:
- Skin colour (black, white, asian, half-cast, etc.)
- Language spoken (English, French, German, etc.)
- Regional accent (Southern, New York, South African, Australian, "foreign-sounding")
- Coloured scarves or flags (to show allegiance to different sports teams)
Examples of markers that occur in a business environment include:
- Clothing (suit & tie, casual, uniformed, overalls, etc)
- Departmental or team logos (worn on T-shirts, for example)
- Business/technical language (eg: jargon used in a particular field)
- Grade or pay-band
A "boundary" is something within the environment that creates distinct regions that are occupied by different groups of people. Examples of boundaries that occur in the general population include:
- first and second class carriages on trains
- geographic regions: different countries or towns
- different passport queues for citizens and non-citizens
- segregated areas in sports grounds for supporters of opposing teams
- the Berlin wall, that separated East from West
- Israel's security fence, that separated Jews from Arabs
Examples of boundaries that occur in a business environment include:
- different sites, buildings or floors
- separate offices, or divides between open-plan areas (eg: cupboards or walkways can create different regions)
- reserved car parking areas for management, closer to the building than the staff parking area
- separate restaurants or coffee lounges for different levels/grades of management/staff
- a meeting structure that puts employees into distinct groups
- smoking and non-smoking areas
The impact of markers and boundaries on teamwork
The presence of markers and boundaries tend to invoke a psychological syndrome known as "in/out groups". This creates two types of group, those in our "in group" and those in our "out group", and we tend to view these two groups differently.
People in our in group tend to be viewed in more positive terms, as individuals, and with the assumption of positive motives. Those in our out group tend to be viewed in more negative terms, often using stereotypes, and with the assumption of negative motives.
Any one marker or boundary in itself has a moderate effect. For example, standing in a passport queue does not, of itself, cause you to have very negative attitutes to people in another queue. However, problems usually start to arise when:
- the marker or boundary is long-lasting or permanent (eg: skin colour)
- there are several boundaries or markers that separate the same people (eg: people of a particular nationality live in a different country, speak a different language, have a different culture, etc.). The effect of coinciding markers/boundaries can be like the tractor taking the same route across a field: the tractor ruts become deeper and a permanent part of the field itself.
- there is a power imbalance between the two groups (eg: in a split-site organisation, the head office is based at one of the sites)
- there is a history between the two groups that provides concrete evidence to justify the out-group prejudices
In a business environment, many of these attributes are often true of small working teams, having many things in common that divide them from other groups, and having been together for a long time. Each small team becomes a small "in group", and all other teams become the "out group". The result is "team islands", where each small team works well together but problems arise in the cross-team working.
NB: markers and boundaries can have a positive effect as well as a negative one, because they can help create a strong team spirit within the small team. However, the focus of this article is on "team islands", where difficulties arise between teams. Getting the balance right, between building strong small teams and encouraging inter-team cooperation, can be difficult. However, the principles outlined below should be viewed in the context that the balance has swung too far towards small-team working, and the proble of "team islands" needs to be addressed.
How a company day can potentially make things worse
A common scenario is that a department organises a social event, say a barbecue. The intention is to create a relaxed atmosphere where people can get to know each other better.
However, what actually happens is that when people arrive they immediately seek out their friends, other members of their in-group. They don't talk to people in their out-group, and by the same principle, the members of their out-group don't talk to them.
This reinforces the stereotypical image of the out-group. For example, if there is a management-staff divide, staff go away from the event with further evidence that management are insular and uninterested in staff; management go away with the impression that staff are ungrateful for management's efforts in putting on the event.
The Guiding Principles to Use
When planning corporate events, the key principles to use are:
Have an integrated planThat means, integrate any corporate events with planned changes back in the workplace. If you have the most brilliant of corporate events, and overcome team islands in an offsite environment, then as soon as you go back to the workplace all the boundaries and markers will act as "environmental cues" that will "trigger" all the old behaviours. This is akin to drink or drug addicts drying out at a rehab unit, but once the program is over and they return home, finding the same old stresses force them back into addictive and escapist behaviours.
Remove markers, where possibleYou will first have to establish what the markers are that create division between the team islands. Once you have done this, try to remove them wherever possible. This might involve:
- Having one dress code that applies to all management and staff
- Dispensing with department and team logos
- Training technical staff not to use jargon when dealing with non-technicians
- Flattening the organisational structure, and/or making the grade/pay-band structure more flexible.
Remove boundaries, where possibleThis might involve:
- redesigning the floor layout, relocating screens, walkways, cupboards, desks so that there are not such clear boundaries between teams
- sharing head-office functions across different sites
- getting rid of separate parking areas, restaurants or other privileges that distinguish management and staff
- revising meeting structures, and inviting representatives from other teams to take part in team meetings
- having well-ventilated rest areas for smokers with other facilities (eg: coffee/tea) that can be shared by non-smokers
Establish commonalities across the whole groupRecognising that you have something in common with other people helps to overcome the effect of in/out groups. There are already some things that everyone has in common (eg: they all work for the same organisation), and these can be stressed. Other commonalities might include:
- Experience. A corporate event can help in this respect, if everyone has the same type of experience, whether it be activities such as archery or blind-driving, the opportunity to express their views in business-oriented syndicate discussions, or simply the experience of being at a particular location.
- Knowledge. Sometimes, corporate events are seen as an opportunity to give a single corporate message. This can be the case, if it is a "business event". However, if the event is primarily a social or active one, time spent in giving organisational messages should be kept to a minimum, otherwise they can completely spoil the day. Sharing knowledge should be happening on a regular basis back in the workplace.
- Goals/Values. An organisational mission statement, if written well, can do much more than drive the strategic plan; it can help to unite the organisation around a single direction. Small teams are more likely to act as team islands if they can't see the bigger picture of which they are a part.
Build personal relationships across team islandsThis is the area where Corporate Events can often make a significant contribution, though the bigger the organisation, the more difficult this is to achieve. Some ways of ensuring that people move outside of their own team island include:
- devise some means of mixing people in groups, such as pre-allocating groups by name, mixing groups a random factor such as date of birth, providing coloured T-shirts to naturally break teams into groups, etc..
- have an initial exercise that encourages each group to build some rapport. Eg: each team could devise a humourous team name based on something they all have in common (for a team of 6 people this might take 20 minutes).
- have activities that involve each group producing a common output, but does not create unnecessary conflict within the group.
- provide opportunity for everyone to meet the organisation's leader, and establishing a personal relationship, even if briefly. For larger groups on business events, a question and answer session with the senior team can also help to establish common relationships.