You’re clutching the top of a rock face with a harness around your waist. The only thing holding you up is a ½-inch-thick rope. The guy on the top of the cliff is telling you you’re next to “go down.” You look toward the ground and see that the person holding the other end of your rope is the same guy who just last month stole all your pitch ideas and then took credit for the big sale. You think of your kids and hope for the best as you let go.

Have you been in this situation—or one like it? Have you been on a team with major trust and conflict issues where the team leader has tried to cure you with a two-day team-building band-aid? If the teams I talk to are any indication, the majority of teams try one of these feel-good tactics before getting serious about improving their effectiveness. Unfortunately, these outdoor adventures tend to make team members more cynical. They also reduce the credibility of genuine attempts to build team effectiveness.

Watch out for these warning signs that a team-building approach is all sizzle and no steak:

1. The team builder doesn’t ask what your company does.

If you’re not talking about your business while planning the session, don’t do it. Your team won’t be effective unless you’re all aligned to a common goal. If your team’s mandate isn’t clear, you’ve got to work on that before you do anything else.

2. The program aims to build trust in a half-day.

If the team builder promises that people will leave trusting each other, don’t do it. Trust is complicated. To truly trust a colleague, you’ve got to believe in their competence, then come to trust in their reliability, and finally decide you can trust their motives. If you’re not convinced that Sally is a good Marketing Analyst, you won’t feel differently after you white water raft together.

3. They’re willing to plan and execute in 4 days.

If the approach doesn’t include talking to your team beforehand, sharing the themes and getting the team to buy in to the agenda, it’s not going to fix a team that’s broken.

4. They don’t warn you it’ll get worse before it gets better.

When you’re doing your spring cleaning, you have to take lots of stuff out from under the bed and the back of the closet before you can sort it and neatly put it away. Building team effectiveness works the same way. There will be some chaos on the path to order.

I like team activities. I’ve done my fair share of drumming, bike building, and adventure races. But don’t confuse fun team activities with strategies for building team effectiveness.

Team activities are great in a couple of situations. First, with new teams—where members need to get to know one another and create some shared experiences. Second, with healthy teams—where the members enjoy each other’s company and need some down time.

But these activities can be downright treacherous when there are issues on the team. Best to invest that time and money in some serious progress on building alignment and improving the team dynamic.

Further Reading

Team Building Exercise: Pass the Problem

It Gets Harder before it gets Easier

Counter-Intuitive Advice on Building Trust

5 Responses to What’s wrong with teambuilding?

  1. I like what you have to say here. There are many team building activities to choose from. Some providers are recreation specialists who know how to play competitive games. Often when teams seek to hire one of these providers it’s appealing and looks like a lot of fun. They don’t understand how competition relates within the team and the business.
    Even when people work together in smaller teams, competing against other teams, the focus still ends up being on competition, not cooperation.

    A team that already has issues will not gain much from a highly charged adrenaline rush activity or intense competitive environment. That could widen the division that probably exists on the team already.
    Although hunting down your co-worker armed and ready to splatter them with paint might be exciting & appealing to some, likely some members of the team will be struck by fear.

    I like to compare these adrenaline charged experiences to sugar rush- empty expensive calories that taste delicious at time they’re being consumed but have little or no valuable nutrients to sustain overall health.


  2. Deidre, thanks so much for your comment. I know there are so many people out there looking for a better answer than games that promote aggression and competition. I’d love to hear a little about what you see as the critical success factors in building team effectiveness. Welcome to the ChangeYourTeam community, we look forward to learning with you! Liane

  3. Pingback: Maybe you don’t need to be a team | 3coze

  4. Pingback: Team Building Exercise: Pass the Problem | 3coze

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