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30th April 2019

Are team away days a worthwhile investment?

New experiences are all part of a person’s learning curve, people seldom grow from doing something they have experienced before[1]. Gareth Southgate, alongside 11 other high-performance sports coaches, has been on the world-class UK Sport elite coaching programme over the last 3 years to ‘take his coaching to the next level’. The programme involves putting leaders in new situations to see how they react. The aim is to help them understand their own behaviour and develop coping strategies to apply in real situations and perform better. With a price tag of over £20,000, many people, including the BBC who interviewed our Senior Business Psychologist Sarah Clarke, asked is the investment in team away days worth it?

History of Team away days

Interest in how team performance can impact business performance can be traced back to the late 1920s and early 1930s with the famous Hawthorne studies. These were a series of studies conducted by Elton Mayo which focused on the effects of physical conditions such as lighting levels on worker productivity. As a by-product of the experiment itself, Mayo found that productivity could be increased by a manager spending time with the team and being concerned for their welfare. The implications were far reaching, resulting in an increased focus on teamwork from both an economic and psychological perspective. It has taken 40 years for team building to become more mainstream, and the benefits of maintaining a positive work culture and positive relationships with co-workers has proven to deliver ROI. Today, it is generally accepted that companies with high employee engagement make two and a half times higher revenue than those without high engagement levels[2]. Businesses now invest billions in leadership development to improve team performance and there are thousands of books available claiming to have the answer of how to create a high performing team.

A team away day is a meeting, away from the usual work environment, which is usually (but not always) aimed at getting new ideas or improving team spirit. McDougall (1920) is often cited as the first person to deliver team away days after he came up with a series of conditions needed for a high performing team. In the 1920s, the structures of organisations were hierarchical, with command and control cultures, supported by Great Man Leadership and Trait Leadership theories creating ‘Big Cheese’ hierarchies with all powerful leaders and subservient employees. In the 1950s, the emergence of Behavioural Leadership theories paved the way for the opportunity for self-improvement. On the back of Transactional Leadership, and later Leader-Member Exchange theory[3], the popularity of the team away day exploded in the 1980s and 1990s as ‘relationships’ became the focus. The aim was to improve relationships between leaders and followers (which had been based on a subservient hierarchy) by taking them out of their work environment and getting them to work together in outward bound activities such as climbing cliffs and bridge rope challenges. Historically, this had the benefit of ensuring leaders got to know their employees better, bringing everyone to the same level and breaking down the personas that people were using based on their roles in organisations.

Is the investment still worth it in today’s world?

Over the last few years, companies have been striving for agile cultures, where people need to be adaptable, resilient, and able to drive innovation. Organisations with this cultural style are those improving in performance and getting into the top performing 100 list. The traditional away day is not aimed to improve these behaviours as its purpose is entirely different. With the rise of flexible working, ‘always on culture’, flatter structures, and dynamic and interlinked roles which rely on each other and have no ‘all powerful’ leader, the benefits of spending some time in a field being challenged to get to know each other better or ‘level’ people is only beneficial to the 20% of organisations who still work in more traditional hierarchical cultures. The challenges of Leadership in today’s organisations need to be solved with more than a day out of the office.

So what is a good investment?

Firstly, it is to diagnose the issue. Many clients come to Impact describing symptoms of underlying issues which need to be addressed strategically across the organisation, team and at an individual level. Due to the complexity and inter-relatedness of organisations, training a couple of members of staff often has limited impact. For higher returns, we form long lasting partnerships with our clients. We deliver long-term strategic interventions, which include; diagnosis, psychometrics, coaching, training, new experiences, self-insight, reflection, on the job training and a myriad of other options to ensure we deliver measurable benefits which impact the bottom line. We also work with a number of other high-profile experts in their field to deliver all-round solutions for organisations based on the science of human behaviour. If you would like to know more about how we can help your organisation, please get in touch with us at [email protected]

[1] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/happiness-in-world/201004/trying-new-things

[2] Gallup (2012). Q12 Meta-analysis Report. Gallup. https://news.gallup.com/reports/191489/q12-meta-analysis-report-2016.aspx?utm_source=link_wwwv9&utm_campaign=item_236927&utm_medium=copy

[3] Graen, G. & Uhl-Bien, M. (1995). Relationship-based approach to Leadership: Development of Leader-Member Exchange (LMX) Theory of Leadership over 25 years: Applying a Multi-domain Perspective,