History of Teamwork and Early Origins of Corporate Team Building


Gain some insights into the history of teamwork and team building....early productivity theories still provide relevant lessons for teams in the workplace today.

So how did the concept of corporate team building originate?

You need to go back at least 80 years if you want to delve into the history of teamwork and team building as we know it today.

That's how long researchers have been examining the behaviour of teams in the workplace.

There are now many well-developed teamwork theories about:

  • employee motivation
  • workplace culture,
  • team development, and
  • the benefits of rewards and recognition.

But in the 1920's and 1930's, none of these concepts were well understood.

The following article sheds some light on the history of teamwork and motivation concepts. It describes one of the earliest research studies into workplace behaviour, plus how we can apply its findings to achieving greater productivity today.

Thanks to Singapore Team Building for providing this article.



History of Teamwork, Team Building and 
the Hawthorne Experiments

The Hawthorne Experiments were conducted by Professor Elton Mayo, from 1927 to 1932, at the Western Electric Hawthorne Works in Chicago.

The experiments were primarily started with the intention of studying the relationship between productivity and work conditions. Professor Mayo started these experiments by examining the physical and environmental influences of the workplace (e.g. brightness of lights, humidity) and then moved on to the psychological aspects (e.g. breaks, group pressure, working hours, managerial leadership).


The Hawthorne Effect

The findings in Hawthorne Experiments have been generally described as the “Hawthorne Effect”, which can be summarized as “Individual behaviors may be altered because people know they are being studied”.

This is, however, only one of the many useful conclusions that Professor Mayo made.


For example, Mayo also found that:

worker productivity increased with the psychological stimulus of being shown individual attention, feeling involved, and being made to feel important.


Today, no-one would argue with this conclusion. However, at the time, there was no established history of teamwork and employee motivation research to rely on. Mayo's findings were considered quite unusual.


About Elton Mayo's Experiment

Mayo selected two ladies from the factory, and they in turn chose another four ladies to participate in the experiment.

The team worked in isolation, under the supervision of a friendly supervisor who established a working relationship with them. He took time to explain the changes that were to be introduced, asked for their feedback and listened to their complaints.

Mayo then varied the working conditions like working hours and number and duration of rest breaks in stages. The level of production was mechanically recorded, while the supervisor recorded the team’s behavior.


Conclusions on Teams in the Workplace

Mayo's study significantly impacted the way management ran production plant from then on, and we believe it resulted in the eventual birth of the concept of team building. Perhaps it's where the history of teamwork theories as we understand them today began.

Among other findings, the conclusions reached by Mayo were:

  1. Relationships between supervisor and workers affected productivity.

    Mayo discovered that the relationships between workers and their supervisors affected production.

    The working relationship that the supervisor established with the workers was not a usual one at that time. Women did not have a high social status at the workplace and when the supervisor asked for feedback from the ladies and listened to their complaints, it gave them a sense of self-worth. Mayo believed that this spurred them on to produce more, even when all the privileges were taken away.

  2. Workgroup norms significantly affected productivity.

    If most people produced at a particular level after a change was made, everyone tended to produce at that level, as it was ‘a fair day’s work’ (this confirmed similar conclusions made previously by other research)

  3. The workplace has a culture.

    A worker’s performance is affected by internal and external social demands. Informal groups within the work plant influence the habits and attitudes of the workers.

  4. Being taken care of.

    Being recognized for their work, feeling secure and a sense of belonging is more important than physical conditions at work.


History of Teamwork Concepts and the Emergence of Team Building

One of the most crucial conclusions from the experiments is that toward the end of the tests, when all of the privileges were taken away, productivity continued to rise to an all time high.

It was reasonably concluded that the production team were more motivated to work hard by the factors listed above than the physical working conditions.

The researchers also noted that there was a possibility that the production team was grateful that the experiments were extended from the initial arrangement of one year to five.

In the decades that followed, employers became increasingly aware of the importance of maintaining a positive work culture and relationship with workers. This probably led to the emergence of team building exercises and retreats.


Applying Lessons from the Hawthorne Experiments in team building

Team building has a very broad meaning; it may mean very different things to different organizations.

To some it may simply mean building cohesion among participants, while to others it may mean improving communication and sharing of information between departments. In essence, team building can mean anything that helps you improve your team’s performance.

If team building is new to your organization, you may want to consider the long history of teamwork and workplace behaviour concepts.

Even though the study was completed so long ago, you can still use the lessons from the Hawthorne Experiments to help you identify some specific areas of team building to begin with for your team.

According to the Hawthorne Experiments, these four areas of a work team can affect productivity:

  1. Work relations between supervisors and workers.
    • Do supervisors and workers have a healthy working relationship?
    • Are the supervisors trained in skills like coaching and supervision, communication and leadership?
    • Is there any unfair treatment in the department?
    • Are there systems in place to ensure fair treatment of workers?

    If there is a need to address issues in this area, then the team building for your organization can focus on team bonding, leadership and communication skills.

    There are two ways to improve systems and workflow at the work place. One of them is to enlist the help of consultants who will work with you to fine tune the systems at your office.

    The other way is to use team building exercises to brainstorm for improvements at the workplace. In this way, the workers will feel that they are part of the decision making process.

  1. Workgroup norms in the organization.

    • What is the standard productivity of your employees?
    • How appropriate is this standard compared across industry?
    • Do the workers perceive this as a “fair day’s work”?

    Historical data will provide a good gauge of what is a fair level of work to require from workers, provided that there are no major changes in the industry. Information can also be gathered when interviewing new staff from companies in similar industries or through external research agencies.

    If your workers are performing way below the industry standard, it is important to find out the reason and manage the change towards healthier workgroup norms.

    On the other hand, if production is far ahead of competition, it is important to keep employees motivated to continue the favorable situation. It may also be useful to find out about the stress and fatigue levels within your team and manage them wisely so as not to create problems in the future.

    To get reasonably truthful feedback from your staff, you may want to consider using a team building exercise or an anonymous survey to assist you. Engaging external consultants to conduct these surveys on your behalf will, in many cases, get higher participation and more candid feedback from staff as it guarantees anonymity.

  2. Culture of the workers.

    • What is the attitude of a worker when he or she is first employed by the company?
    • Has this attitude changed following integration into the work teams?
    • What brought about the change?

    These are questions which may help rate the culture of your workforce.

    Education in work culture will help workers be more aware of how they can affect the morale of their team mates.

    Understanding the fact that being positive and supportive is contagious will not only encourage others but also motivate them as it instills a social responsibility. Team building events focusing in this area serve well as an informal approach to inculcate these values.

    Reward systems that encourage desired behavior in this case will do two things: It will reinforce positive behavior; and create the “Hawthorne Effect ”(bring about positive behavior in the workforce because they know that they are being monitored).

  3. Does management express concern toward the team?

    • Is there freedom of speech at the workplace?
    • Do team members have avenues to make suggestions to improve working conditions or help increase productivity?
    • Are employees rewarded if they meet certain targets?

    Medical insurance, car allowances, bonuses, rewards, birthday celebrations and team building retreats are some common ways that organizations show concern toward their employees. How many such measures do you have in place?


    Why not post these questions to your staff?

    Learn from the history of teamwork and motivational studies like the Hawthorne Experiments and kickstart productivity improvements in your office today.


    Thanks again to Singapore Team Building for this article which helps us understand some of the history of teamwork concepts. See the listing for Singapore Team Building in our team building directory for more information.

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