A friend had to go to a mandatory “team building” event. You can probably guess my opinion of such things, but some people like them. Wasting time “building unity” by doing a silly activity such as building a raft, making a dinner or negotiating a ropes course is bad enough during business hours, but this event was held in the evening.

You remember the purpose of evenings, don’t you? It’s time to be at home.

During this team building activity, a nice HR person (who undoubtedly had a hand in organizing the whole event) talked about how they were having a turnover problem. The theory was that by building cohesiveness everyone would start to love their team so much they wouldn’t dare leave.

I think HR should have thought, “Gee, maybe it’s that whole work-life balance thing creeping up on us. Maybe, just maybe, we shouldn’t require people to spend their evenings at team building events!”

Sometimes we get caught up in the latest fad or program and we think, “gee, won’t this be fabulous!” and we forget to ask if this is actually helping the business by truly meeting the needs of the people. Yes, the activity you came up with might be “fun,” but most people consider work, work and want to find their fun elsewhere.

Or we think that for a team to be effective they need to be bonded in some significant fashion. And that perhaps trusting my coworker to catch me as I fall backwards will improve performance all around. Frankly, I’d rather trust my coworker to get her part of the project done on time. That builds team cohesiveness better than anything else, in my humble opinion.

So, next time you go implementing some sort of program, stop and think about how this will really affect business performance. Is it helping or inadvertantly hurting?

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27 thoughts on “Team Building

  1. Bravo! I couldn’t agree more. It’s so interesting how people lose sight of this sometimes and then are annoyed when their coworkers aren’t excited to be there.

    Part of the great thing about being in charge is that I can be totally confident I’ll never have to go to any of those awful activities, because we will never have any on my watch.

  2. Usually I am right with you, but this time you may have tossed the baby out with the bathwater. Teams do not become teams by accident. It requires some conscious decisions and a lot of housekeeing.

    The problem with most team building is that it does not connect back to the work of the team. Exercises such as the ones you describe are trivial when they do not provide some practical use for the team.

    I am a fan of Jon Katzenbach when it comes to teams: Teams get better by doing the work of the team better. So, team building exercises for their own sake are, as you say, a waste. But an exercise that is used to change how the team works for the better is worth every minute.

  3. I. Barry, I agree that good teams don’t generally just happen. (There are exceptions, of course. Sometimes everyone just clicks together nicely.) But, I have yet to see an after hours team building event that has helped towards team unity.

  4. HR might have also thought, "Maybe the team might give us some insight & tell us why others in the team are leaving the company?" While all along the HR failed to realize that the very event being conducted could be a major factor in driving employees away citing work-life imbalance!

    Getting a team to work cohesively starts with hiring people who can work together . The larger responsibility however lies with the manager in getting them to work together, rather than ask HR to take the team to walk on ropes!

  5. Having one of those marginally entertaining snoozers in the evening is clearly a party-foul. This is the kind of rubbish a certain public accounting firm (that I divorced ASAP) would try.

    Many times when morale is low, these kind of events really just exacerbate the problem. The root causes of bad morale (paycuts, layoffs, existing ineffectiveness at the team-level, etc.) are still there after you unhook the safety harnesses.

    “The beatings will continue until morale improves!”

  6. I’ve done team building off site exercises successfully for years because it’s always during business hours. It works to build a better team and doesn’t interfere with the work/life balance.

  7. Group hugs always make me feel like I’m revisiting a junior high school dance. I do not want to touch you or perform any activity that shows how uncoordinated I really am. Eeeewwww! While not everyone’s cup of tea, I am a fan of Myers-Briggs or Big 5 testing and interpretation within a team. Of course on company time too. I’ve learned more about myself and how to work with others, including my own husband this way. How heavy you are when you fall back and crush my 5ft tall frame doesn’t explain why you surf the net all day instead of getting work done.

    BTW, EHRL, I’m so glad you are back!

  8. I agree with HR Godess. You will have a better response to team building if it is done during business hours – not personal time.

    Last Xmas we drew names to create teams and had a gingerbread building contest. Teams could spend as much (or as little) time on the project that they wanted. Some teams completed their houses over several lunch breaks, others (like my team) opted to get together on a Sunday afternoon to complete the project. It was a lot of fun, and I think that it strengthened our team overall too. Everyone participated even though no one was required to.

  9. I'm no warm & fuzzy HR person, and I have a number of personality inventory/style results to prove it. But I do see value in team-building when done properly, but this post seems overly negative on them.

    "Wasting time "building unity" by doing a silly activity such as building a raft, making a dinner or negotiating a ropes course is bad enough during business hours, but this event was held in the evening."

    Yeah, planning it for the evening was not smart (unless the activity required it), but the sentiment seems to take a jab at all team-building, not the fact that it was scheduled at a bad time.

  10. I completely agree with you on this one. Team building occurs when you work on a work project together and successfully complete it; not when you go offsite and complete an activity completely unrelated to work.

  11. I agree with you in that team building is easy to screw up and hard to do right. But I also agree with jaded hr rep in that just because there’s a great chance, if all variables are not right, for it to go bad doesn’t mean it should be avoided.

    The nonprofit I write for, Winning Workplaces, profiles and honors small organizations that do it the right way — and whatever the actual event, its chance for success is increased when leadership is on board, when they make such activities a regular part of their employee engagement, and when they have a long-term focus (ie, treat it not as a fad or a quick to-do item to temporarily boost morale).

    A while back on our blog we wrote about 20 examples of effective team building, viewable at: http://bit.ly/SxHsO As you can see, many of them fall under the “team building” umbrella, but they are more process-related than entertaining individual event format.

    Even though I mostly disagree with the author, this is a good and important debate to have — even more so because of team building’s potential to make firms more productive and proftable in this tough economic climate. So I hope the comments keep coming fast and furiously!

  12. I watched the movie “Eddie,” about a guy who buys a losing basketball team and wants to increase attendance with bells and whistles like cheerleaders and fireworks.

    But all people really want is to watch a winning team. Focus on what makes you win and you’ll get the team. Don’t pay for fireworks and the cheerleaders. They don’t make you win.

  13. Work stuff needs to be done during work hours, not on the employees’ free time. If the team-building activities have a work-related purpose, they need to happen during work hours. If they don’t, why do them?

    I’m all for encouraging employees to get to know each other and have some fun together. (Not that you need to be best buddies to work together, but a little personal interaction helps.) But the key is “encourage”–not mandate. And don’t overdo the touchy-feely stuff. Provide a nice space for lunch-time socialization or celebrate birthdays once a month. Or do a Friday happy hour. Nothing big, nothing too group-huggy or time consuming. And let those who want to participate do so, without giving those who don’t a hard time.

  14. In my experience these types of “team-building” events are successful when they are done with the right kind of employees – UPPER management types who are married to the organization and have an outside life that comes in second. They are also the ones who recognize that they do need some kind of team-building effort aside from sitting in meetings. These team-building events are meant to answer the question “what is a team?” Something that many managers truly cannot answer without thinking that it means “doing whatever I say.” So, yes, these types of employees really benefit from such training.

    The problem, as I see it, is that because of the success of these events for managment some then think that it can be forced on the other employees who have a different outlook on how to go about team building.

    The real issue that comes into play then is that employees usually have different learning styles. Unless the “facilitator” (As a trainer I can say “God, how I hate that word”) takes these different learning styles into account these “team-building” events will usually fail.

    And in my opinion, NO event, team-building or otherwise, should be scheduled outside of working hours for non-exempt staff unless they are being paid overtime and it is NOT mandatory.

  15. The biggest problem with this approach is that not every employee issue can be resolved with training. Training addresses a very specific deficiency; knowledge and skills. It can not boost ability and it has an indirect (at best) impact on employee attitudes.

    You don’t throw a canned solution at an unknown problem. You do this at your own peril. The backlash in employee attitudes is not at all surprising. Instead of jungle courses, find out why employee morale is so low. Only then can you begin to fix the problem.

  16. I’m going to completely go against the grain, go all “negative” and say – all these team building exercises are a bunch of rubbish. I’ve been to a ton of them. Including but not limited to sharing “photo’s”, and “imagining a ball of energy”.

    I bet if you ask most people away from the office, they would say they’d rather be getting work done – than pretending a team building meeting is anything other than a social event.

    You know what is an excellent team building effort? Performance based compensation. They would work harder if you just actually paid them for that time, rather than forcing them to do something probably 90% of them don’t want to do. I also bet 90% of them think you are wasting their time with these meetings.

  17. I’m positive that my management team would benefit with some team-building exercises, but with adults, these types of events are a fine line between training and waste of time. I think that having a strong mentor and coach coming into the environment to work with the team on their daily interactions and issues would be more valuable than these off-site team building events.

  18. Any additional time that I am required to be somewhere by my employer is time that I loathe. I gain nothing but anger from being required to do something outside of work hours. I don’t have enough time to myself as it is, without being forced to build a team.

    Just my opinion.

  19. As a person who has a job that requires 70 hour work weeks and beeper call, the LAST thing in the world I want to do is spend some soi-disant free time with the people I work with. If it can’t be done during work hours, because we’re taking care of patients, then I’m not interested, and I’m happy to not catch you when you fall backwards.

  20. Dear Evil HR Lady,

    I hear you loud and clear about wasting time on team building activities. I’ve found that what really works is for companies to invest in team building that goes beyond the standard “catch me falling” type of things to the core issues that really cause people to drive each other crazy.

    Companies that invest the time and resources benefit from employees that work better together and get more done more happily.



  21. I agree. Teams don’t just happen and you can’t force it. Team is about developing an environment and an understanding.

    @ I. Barry Goldberg :
    “Usually I am right with you, but this time you may have tossed the baby out with the bathwater. Teams do not become teams by accident. It requires some conscious decisions and a lot of housekeeing.

    The problem with most team building is that it does not connect back to the work of the team. Exercises such as the ones you describe are trivial when they do not provide some practical use for the team.”

  22. EHRL, this is my first time visiting your blog, and I have already bookmarked it for future reference. Love it!

    Regarding team-building exercises, I was skeptical of these “kumbaya” exercises too…until I was “forced” to participate in one for my MBA degree. It was actually an entire class that included a weekend retreat. I took the class to get the requirement out of the way and ended up truly learning about myself and how to interact with people better. By the end of the quarter, the team had bonded and years later, oceans apart, we still keep in touch.

    I agree that it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, and I certainly wouldn’t want to be forced to do this type of thing off-hours, it was a positive experience for me and I still reflect back on it. If it is thought out and done right, it can be a positive experience. I found it has helped me, and I’d hate for these activities to be unfairly thrown into the “all bad” category.

  23. Team building activity could happen on or off site… It would actually depends on the participants. It will not interfere with the work if it was planned very well…

    All the best!

  24. What if an employee–for personal reasons he or she does not want (and shouldn't be required) to share–doesn't want to participate in a "team building" exercise? My sister's boss has decided that his employees should do a little "team building" by going to one of these places where people shoot at each other with laser guns. (It's a kid thing, I think. I've never heard of it before.) My sister is totally freaked out over it because several years ago–before she went to work for this company–she and her husband were carjacked at gunpoint, and her husband was killed. She has PTSD over it, but it's not as bad as it used to be. She just doesn't want anything to do with guns of any kind, even toys. And she doesn't want to tell the boss or HR, because she's afraid they'll think she has mental problems and she'll lose her job–and she can't afford to lose the salary or benefits. Frankly, I'm wondering what her boss must have been thinking when he picked this particular exercise. It sounds more violent and aggressive than anything else–not something to make people bond with each other. Shouldn't employees have the right to just say NO to something that's downright stupid and inappropriate? And I agree that non-exempt employees shouldn't have to do these exercises at all. Build teamwork at the office on a REAL work project and get something DONE! Quit wasting time on these obnoxious little games.

  25. Great post Evil HR Lady. I've found team building most helpful when it moves beyond bonding activities to actually building deeper connections between people. Effective team building helps employees build empathy, communication, leadership and collaboration skills which help create better functioning and more enjoyable workplaces.

  26. Team building sucks no matter how you cut it. I don’t want to “bond” with my co-workers, there is no need for that, just act professionally and like an adult and we’ll get along just fine. Doing something unrelated to work will not make me feel any closer to anyone. The task becomes something to be endured, like a bad cold while refraining from telling the planner to get a life. Seriously, who started this crap. None of the activities ever appeal to everyone and it puts pressure on people to act like they want to be there, just more stress to deal with. Yeah, just what everyone needs more off.

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