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Corporate events

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:

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:

Examples of markers that occur in a business environment include:

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:

Examples of boundaries that occur in a business environment include:

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:

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 plan

That 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 possible

You 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:

Remove boundaries, where possible

This might involve:

Establish commonalities across the whole group

Recognising 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:

Build personal relationships across team islands

This 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:

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