Not the time for team building activities

Businessmen Playing Football on BeachThe word team has been stolen from sports to become the label we apply to most all work groups. And when our work team acts in un-sportsmanlike ways, we are eager to provide a quick fix – whether it’s outdoor team building exercises, an off-site meeting or an evening at a local pub. Yet we discover that team building events, no matter how well intended,  doesn’t always work. Perhaps it’s not the time for team building.

Could it be that today’s popular T.V. reality shows, where people are voted off the team,  are closer to our nature than we can admit? Some leaders are cynical about planning any group activity. Actually, there are times when team building is very effective and as a Team Coach I can say that working together to become a better team can be rewarding for individuals as well as the group. Wise leaders apply the right solution, because they know when not to intervene in this way.

Here are five examples of when team building won’t work:

There are under-performers

When one or two people on the team are not pulling their weight. Having a few non-performers on the team quickly drags down morale. But if the leader’s response is to pull the whole team off the job for a team building session it feels like a teacher who punishes the whole class because one kid is truant. Of course, if the under-performers are clever, the boss may not suspect they are the cause of low morale. The remedy is to keep lines of communication open and ask what’s up. If you discover a performance problem, solve it with good one-on-one coaching before you ever bring the team together for team building.

Tired Team

When the team is chronically over-worked.  Celebrations at the end of a seasonal rush or short-term project are always appreciated. But if the team is tired and has been over-worked for a long time, it’s smarter to solve the organizational problem than conduct team building. A session that does not address the systemic issues likely will degenerate into complaints about management and the inadequacy of resources. If honesty is too risky, the team may decide to grumble about trivial matters.

It’s something only you will enjoy.

When the activity will be enjoyed only by a few. Many well-meaning leaders are enthusiastic about engaging their team in something they personally love. If it’s horses, or sailing, or yoga, or photography, or bird-watching, avoid trouble by testing your idea for team building with the whole group or a representative planning group. If people are invited to participate in something they’d rather not, your team building will actually create rifts. Some people will participate solely to please you.

Trust has been broken.

When trust has been broken and communication is poor. I have coached many leaders who were surprised to discover they had inadvertently damaged the trust of their team. And no one was willing to come forward directly and tell them what they had done, because of the lack of trust. It began a cycle of mistrust and poor communication. Breaking the cycle involves taking accountability for the past, apologizing sincerely even for unintended impacts, and demonstrating new behaviours that create trust. If a leader inherits an untrusting team she must represent the organization in healing past hurts.  A sincere conversation is better than a fun team building event.

Rewards have been cut.

When individual rewards have been cut. There may be no money in the budget for increasing wages, but leaders can usually afford a dinner night out or a Christmas give-away. Be aware that such signs of generosity often backfire when presented to teams soon after another benefit has been removed or reduced. Baking special treats yourself or hosting the team around your pool, at your cost, is better than using more structured team building events as a way to appease for organizational changes.

3 thoughts on “Not the time for team building activities

  1. I think your comment on “under-performers” is very valid. I also think it’s an area that managers tend to want to ignore.

    Any one or two people that don’t fit the team environment/culture well (or even worse purposely try to sabotage the team) can have an enormous impact on the overall team members. We’ve seen just ONE person impact and drive a whole team to the point of near failure.

    The manager has a duty to keep the team as-a-whole on track and performing well, but so many will shy away from the necessity of “exiting” a single person in a professional and expeditious manner. In the long run, it helps everyone to realize the best fit for team members and to face it head on.

    I think it’s a case when “the tribe should have spoken” more often than not!

    Thanks for the great article.

  2. While I agree that considering a teambuilding event is a bad idea in an environment where jobs and incentives have been cut, properly planned and facilitated teambuilding can often be the shot in the arm in the other instances you mention, especially so for organizations that under-perform, are tired or need to build trust. The problem is so-called teambuilding companies who roll out cookie-cutter “races, relays and game shows” that don’t address core team issues and provide no adaptibility back in the office.

    You can’t play your way out of problems you behaved yourself into. Professional teambuilding facilitators dig deep into the organizational issues BEFORE ever suggesting a program that might be a good fit. When that doesn’t happen, often a program that is enjoyed by the “leader” or “planner” is rolled out, and as you correctly state, this is just another bad day for all.

    Teambuilding is a word misunderstood and misued by many. Games and activities are play, and not everyone plays well together, nor should they. Building a great team requires a bit more work, time and follow-up. Done properly, team-building can help any organization get its people engaged and focused on TEAM success.

  3. Team building is not a quick fix, and should not be viewed as such; as with anything else involving human beings, team performance, cohesion and morale is something that must be developed over time, and sustained, properly implemented team building activities which promote positive workplace skills like communication, collaboration and teamwork can only help in that effort.

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