Difference between team-building and team cohesion
How to build strong workplace teams Teambuilding in Kansas City

Difference between team-building and team cohesion

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When I’m contracted to facilitate True Colors™ team-building workshops, I often ask the client to explain their goals for the training. This information helps me customize my content to meet their needs.  It also helps me understand their overall expectations of the training.

More often than not, their response to my question is “team-building” or some will say “team cohesion”.

It prompted me to ponder: is there a difference between team building and team cohesion?  The one word answer: YES!

I’ll explain both, but first let’s discuss team-building. We’ll touch on cohesion later.

What is team-building?

Team-building is a process, not an activity. In fact, it’s the systematic process
of unifying a group around a specific goal. Etienne Wenger might describe this goal as a “domain”.

The team-building process guides and propels a group into a place of closeness, mutual understanding and trust. In essence, team-building is like forging healthy relationships. Forging them requires each of the above mentioned. Each minimizes the interpersonal barriers that can impede workplace productivity.

Why bother?

I’m glad you asked! The answer is simple. A team that works well together performs at a higher level of efficiency than one struggling with constant conflict, mistrust and a lot of silly bickering.


Bess needs the report Jeff generates monthly. She emails him to request it. Jeff perceives Bess as a snob and as incredibly bossy. He’s a little “put off” by her cold, stiff email.

“That’s just how she is”, he thinks to himself: “in the break room she’s gets her coffee like she’s on a mission from God and barely returns a cordial ‘Good morning’”. Jeff doesn’t understand her and is not going to let her treat him like some grunt. He closes her email and decides to send the report when he gets good and ready. “I have feelings and I deserve respect”, he thinks.

Meanwhile, Bess sees Jeff as an incessant talker. She may think: People are always at his desk…talking…when they should be working. He’s always smiling and bringing donuts no one asks for. “He’s just doing that to make friends.” Workplace friendships are unprofessional” she thinks to herself. Bess is committed to being productive and marking off as many tasks as she can from her list. “I was hired to do a job, and I’m going to do it”.  Two totally different perspectives.

These two have a productivity barrier and leadership possibly doesn’t even know it. If they do know, they likely have no idea how to fix it anyway. But, if these two attended one of my True Colors workshops in Kansas City, they would discover that Bess is likely a Gold and Jeff is probably a Blue. They would explore the strengths of these contrasted temperaments and likely have a big laugh about how one initially viewed the other.

Wondering what I’m talking about?

What team-building does…

During effective team-building experiences, a group explores the motivations, personalities, weaknesses, values, triggers and needs of other team members. In other words, they learn how to “handle” one another in ways that leverage team strengths and enable everyone to work well together.

That’s why I’m not a big fan of consultants that swoop into workplaces; do a litany of games and label them “team-building”. Adventure activities and games are great to do AFTER you’ve layed a research-based foundation like True Colors(tm).

No, team-building is not static. No team remains at a level of closeness without maintenance. Click To Tweet

I also don’t think team-building is a one and done type activity. Common everyday situations can cause a high functioning team to plummet to a bunch of disconnected strangers. Here are a few ways this can happen:

* new team members arrive and interpersonal dynamics shift

* organizational/departmental changes (i.e. new managers, re-structuring, etc.)

*societal issues that affect the company, community or even the nation (i.e. a company scandal in the news, national catastrophes and even an election year can create divisions).

Depending on the type of organization you are, these scenarios can throw a monkey wrench into your team dynamic.

I especially saw this happen in a youth organization years ago. A newly elected US president created immense tension among a nonprofit team living and working thousands of miles away. The new president’s agenda was education in school settings. With this emphasis on education, youth-serving agencies knew funding streams would be impacted. Tension and worry invaded the nonprofit staff. Colleagues began snapping at one another. Mistrust surfaced as some team members assumed others were preparing to “jump ship”. It was ugly. Imagine that. A team dynamic in the heartland was demolished as a result of a new president in Washington DC.

Note: it’s happening again. This post is several years old!

Anyhoo, if the team dynamic is altered, a new team-building process must start afresh before irreparable damage is done and the team [is] permanently impacted. This needn’t [always] include an outside consultant. You can likely find other ways to build team identity. If not, contact me for technical assistance.

Let’s talk about team cohesion now.

The team-building process explores, unveils and enlightens team members. In it’s best contexts, team-building is the direct result of intentional plans, exercises and/or experiences.

Team-cohesion are the bonds, trust and connection that results from the above mentioned plans, exercises and experiences.

Team cohesion is a “closeness” rooted in understanding and acceptance. It influences interactions, reduces conflicts and cultivates a sense of belonging and a sort of membership to the work group, department or organization. But, here’s the kicker: team cohesion doesn’t last unmanaged. Like a cheap lipstick, it’s temporary. Without regular upkeep, it burns out and fades away.  Team-cohesion requires maintenance.

Click To Tweet

Remember my earlier example about the imaginary coworkers Bess and Jeff? Say the same scenario happened, but a week before, they attended my True Colors sessions in Kansas City.

Likely, Bess would customize her email in a way that meets Jeff’s need to relate to his colleagues. She might begin the email with a warm “Good morning” or “Hi Jeff, are you having a good day?” Then, she would make her request.

Similarly, Jeff, knowing Bess’ need to get things done quickly, would interpret her email with a bit more empathy. He may read her original email and think to himself, “Oh boy, she’s ready to cross something from her list and may be a little stressed. I’ll get this report to her quickly so she can mark it off.”

See, a little bit of insight goes a long way.

So, in short:

Team-building – the process of bringing everyone together. (The journey)

Team cohesion – the state of being that enables individuals to feel positively connected to other team members, organizational goals and purposes. (The destination)

Make sense? If so, share!

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