Positive reinforcement in team building

At a recent corporate event, Bank of America executives decided to put aside their power points and spreadsheets for something more inspirational. The event starred an enthusiastic middle-aged employee turning U2’s song “One� into an embarrassingly corny corporate anthem. The song celebrated the company’s merger with MBNA with lyrics such as “We’ll live out our core values while the competition crawls�.

Although the performance earned a standing ovation from fellow employees, it was generally mocked on You Tube, where over 100,000 people viewed it. It was even featured in a Wall Street Journal article about “cringe worthy� corporate cultures.

Do these high emotion attempts at team building actually work? It would be wonderful if one day retreats and touchy feel[y exercises could create happy, productive teams, but the reality is that people quickly forget these events and teams revert to their original routines. Whereas these quick fixes often produce superficial results, leaders do possess more powerful tools through which they can build teams and resolve their underlying issues.

Consider a work group that’s become dysfunctional due to a dynamic with a competitive and boastful member. During meeting, people waste time dealing with his inappropriate behavior, which distracts them from essential tasks. After meetings, teammates bond by disparaging him behind his back. Is possible to rehabilitate this team? Here are some first steps.

What would your ideal team look like? Would they be warm and caring or aggressive? Would they be more creative or effici0ent? Leaders must identify what values and behaviors are appropriate before they can cultivate them.

Once you identify appropriate behaviors, create incentives that support them. Many organizations inadvertently reward competitive self promoters who’ll destroy teams. In a research, for instance, it was found that managers often award higher bonuses and offer promotions to people who reject their fellow teammates’ ideas and instead seek similar ideas from outsiders (example – competitors). To encourage cooperative behavior within team a manager must evaluate people’s behavior, eliminate incentives that elicit bad behavior, and promote and reward the cooperators.

Even if the team leader lack control over the team’s financial incentives, he may still possess social carrots and sticks through which he can mold appropriate team behavior. Many people don’t recognize their own power to change other people’s behavior. Their natural inclination is to avoid confronting offenders directly. They politely nod their heads and implicitly encourage the distasteful behavior. Those who directly insult the offender just make him defensive.

To change these dynamics, people should respond impassively every time he brags, but then quickly change the subject to withdraw any positive reinforcement he accrues through polite interest or negative attention. Further, they should identify and positively reinforce his best qualities (for instance, being hardworking) through compliments and attention. This changes the conditions that earn him social rewards and elicits his best qualities.

In sum, bad teams aren’t made of bad people, but situation. Identify how your team would look in a perfect world, create the incentives that support it, and deploy social pressures to create situations that bring out their best. This may not be as fun or easy as the song and dance, but it’s likely to be a good deal more effective.

It would be wonderful if one day retreats and touchy-feely exercises could create happy, productive teams, but the reality is that people quickly forget these events and teams revert to their original routines. Whereas these quick fixes often produce superficial results, leader, leaders do possess more powerful tools through which they can build team and resolve their underlying issues.