Does Teambuilding Work?

Many employers – be it to address conflict or low morale or just to improve sales – provide teambuilding to their employees.  A recent LinkedIn forum explored the effectiveness of such efforts.  It confirmed what I myself have observed: done properly, team building can work well, done cursorily or poorly, it can be worse than doing nothing. 

This week I want to discuss what kinds of teambuilding don’t work. Next week I’ll address what elements are needed for teambuilding to be successful.

So what doesn’t work?

  •  Off the shelf, one size fits all programs. Everyone hates to be manipulated and patronized. Any program that doesn’t address the actual people and problems in issue has to be both because it won’t respect the complexity and individuality of the employees and their issues.
  • Games, fun activities, sing-alongs, outdoor challenge programs.  They may be fun, but they won’t solve real problems. And for many participants, they won’t even be fun. 
  • Working with an overly large group. You just can’t be effective if there are more than 10 or so employees in the group.  Too many variables, too many voices.
  • Teambuilding as a substitute for addressing performance or behavior issues.  A day of Kumbaya won’t help if the manager is incompetent, a couple of bullies run the shop, employees are screaming at each other because they can’t keep up with the workload, etc. 
  • A quick fix.  A few hours or even a full day of anything, even quality teambuilding, will not be enough to address serious or longstanding issues (and aren’t they all?). 
  • An unskilled leader.  It’s not easy to facilitate effectively.  One difficult, self-centered, angry or volatile employee can sabotage the whole enterprise and only a skilled leader can handle this type of participant.  Which also brings us back to a couple of bullets ago: teambuilding cannot substitute for addressing behavior issues.
  • Management outsources the process with little involvement.  We all know that it starts at the top. If management is not invested in the process, the employees will not be either.

What else do you think dooms teambuilding to failure?  ~Amy Stephson

7 responses to “Does Teambuilding Work?

  1. One other thing that dooms teambuilding – and that is implied in your post, but I think is really critical and therefore worth pinpointing: lack of follow-up. One (or even several) sessions of teambuilding will be doomed to failure if what’s been leaerned is not made an integral part of the subsequent life of the team.

  2. Back when I was in the software industry, we had mandatory team building events in bar/restuarants. I was one of two women in a group of 12. About half of the people were drinking beer. Our boss started the hilarity by joking about a gynecologist he knew named, Dr. Beaver. My end of the table fell into an extended, uncomfortable silence with all of us looking at our empty plates wishing like heck we could be done. The other end of the table got more and more inappropriate (including the one other woman who was getting quite drunk). Talk evolved into a graphic description of the tools that OB/GYN had used on one man’s wife during her pregnancy, and went on to discuss the fact that the doctor was a transgender female.
    It was one of the most uncomfortable experiences of my working life. After 10 or 15 minutes, when it seemed that the conversation wasn’t going to turn of its own accord, I called out to ask them to change the subject Please! I had a big discussion with my boss the next Monday but he didn’t get what the problem was. Months later the general atmosphere had gotten so raunchy that the other women blew and screamed at our boss for a comment that he had made to her. Even then I STILL had to go on a major campaign to not have our “bonding events” in gross, dark bars. I heard that months after both my boss and I had left the company, there was a big sexual harassment show-down that included those events and more.
    Getting the team to “Let theirhair down,” with alcohol is NOT a great idea in MHO.

  3. Daphne, I completely agree. As with anything, it is important to build upon the lessons that you learned and keep them in the front of your mind.

  4. I work on an IT team that gets along great, but I hate our team building days. First off, we’re too busy to lose 1/2 a day for something so frivolous. I work 70+ hour weeks just to get the basics done, so losing time during the day=more work at night when I should be with my family.

    Additionally, like most of my co-workers, I’m very introverted. So spending time having to make idle conversation for several hours provides for generally painful, awkward experiences in general.

    Then there are the “activities”. Our latest team building (there have been 4 in the year I’ve been with the company) is later this week. We’re all scheduled to go out for a 3 hour hike (on a 100 degree day). I’m the only one who voiced concerns, which were promptly brushed aside by the men (“most of the trail will be shady!”). I don’t see how sweating profusely in front of my co-workers is going to make me a more efficient team member. I DO see how it is going to alert them to a particularly grouchy side of me they would never normally see during regular, air-conditioned business hours. I have discussed this with my spouse, and despite the stigma it will cause, I am going to call in sick, for the 2nd team building day in a row. (Last time, they wanted to have a paintball competition.)

    What else can I do? The other people on my team are either afraid to speak up or actually want to do these activities. I don’t want to be seen as the “complainer” on the team but seriously, I can’t handle that kind of heat/pain, nor do I think I should have to.

    • Workplace Insiders

      I would suggest that you not grump about the teambuilding because someone high up seems to think it’s great. Also, if you keep mum, they’ll think you’re really sick when you call in sick and won’t see you as protesting the teambuilding. Otherwise, you might do some research on other types of nonphysical teambuilding and suggest those instead. One I have read about is cooking a dinner together. A variation is dividing the team into three smal groups, give each a bag with ingredients, and see what different menus the three groups come up with. Sound more attractive to you? ~Amy Stephson

      • No, that sounds ridiculous. Just because someone higher up thinks it’s a good idea doesn’t mean they’re right. Did you miss the part where I mentioned we’re all working 15 hour days? And please don’t patronize me by calling me a grump because I just want to do my job and not treated like a toddler on a play date.

      • Workplace Insiders

        Kim–No it doesn’t mean they’re right, it just means they’re the boss. I did not say you are a grump–sorry if it read that way–I was just presenting some strategies to get through what you see as an ordeal. It sounds like your workload is your real concern. Maybe you can figure out a way to bring that to management’s attention and see if something can be done about it. ~Amy Stephson

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