Why corporate team-building events can be terrible

Image source, Getty Images

Nothing quite strikes fear into the heart of employees like the words "team-building event" - especially for those who have attended enough of these events to know how downright bizarre they can sometimes be, says author Alison Green, and creator of the workplace advice column Ask a Manager.

What's the strangest team-building exercise you've ever been on? Circus skills, ice-carving or even sheepdog herding are all genuine days out workers have been subjected to.

Team-building events are, ostensibly, designed to boost the cohesion of a team and increase communication, co-operation, and morale.

Those are all worthwhile business goals, but in practice, many such events involve things like blindfolded trust falls, humiliating dance performances, rope-climbing courses, and other endeavours where the connection to those business goals isn't quite clear.

Image source, Alison Green
Image caption,
Too often employers schedule team-building events without really thinking how they'll produce better results, says Alison Green

I heard from one reader who worked on a team of people who were having trouble getting along, so her manager organised a team-building event where everyone present had to share what they didn't like about each other.

Unsurprisingly, tears ensued. She noted that, contrary to the purpose of the event, she and her colleagues went from not being able to work together well to actively disliking each other in about 30 minutes.

Another reader wrote in about a team-building event that her office held on a horse farm. One horse got over-excited and nearly trampled one of her colleagues. "It was a bonding experience to a certain extent," she wrote, "but only because we all thought we were going to die."

Another reader described a team-building exercise where she and her co-workers had to spit soda into each other's mouths - why, I don't know - and another was made to watch videos about the leadership skills of dolphins.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Getting workers to share what they dislike about each other can be fraught with danger

Another person's team had to line up and pass a grapefruit down the line without anyone using their hands or arms, and without letting the grapefruit fall.

Still other team-building exercises put pressure on people to do things that they physically can't do.

Recently I heard from a reader whose boss was requiring everyone to gather together in a room to do tai chi several mornings a week - allegedly as a form of team-building. My reader had a medical condition that prevented him from participating.

Rather than excuse him entirely, the boss told him to sit silently and watch everyone else do it.

"It has left me feeling singled out and punished for not being able to participate, and fielding questions from co-workers about why I'm not following along with the programme," he told me.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Often, such events can have little relevance to real-life office work

Not exactly what team building is supposed to achieve.

And some team-building exercises ask people to share things that would normally be considered way too personal for an employer to ask about - things like your deepest fears or experiences from childhood.

I heard about one where participants were asked to share the story behind a scar - physical or emotional. Yes, emotional. Those questions can be easy for some but if you're someone who, say, dealt with trauma or abuse in your childhood - or if you're someone who just prefers privacy - these are not fun games to play.

As these examples make clear, too often employers schedule team-building events without putting real thought into how they'll produce better results, or they use them as a substitute for more meaningful work on communication or co-operation issues.

As a result, these events can be tremendously annoying to employees and - the opposite of raising morale - they can actually lower morale, especially if they're a response to deep-rooted, problematic team dynamics that require more serious solutions.

Real team building isn't about one or two events per year. Instead, it's about how a team runs, day to day.

Good managers prioritise communication, co-operation, and morale year-round, not just for the duration of a team-building event.

And good managers build strong teams by having people work together on projects with clear goals, clear roles, and appropriate feedback and recognition; by creating opportunities for people to get a deeper understanding of each other's work; and by giving people the chance for meaningful input into the direction of the team.

People are more likely to feel like part of a real team if they have a chance to share their input and talk over challenges, and if they see that that input is welcome and truly considered.

And oddly, many team-building exercises are based around solving artificial problems as a group, like building a balloon tower or untangling a human knot - things that aren't likely to come up in our actual work for most of us.

It's far more effective, and useful, to instead involve your work group in grappling with real challenges as part of the normal course of business.

In other words, what builds strong teams is… good management, day after day after day. That may not be as entertaining as dance performances or rope courses, but it's what works.

For more workplace letters from Alison Green and other contributors, download the World Business Report podcast.

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