Updated: May 8, 2022
“I don't know why they do this to adults. I was at a school that made us do 3 days of "bonding", how about 3 days of working collaboratively, or doing something actually productive.”
Oh god! Now, this is another terrifying word. Worse than icebreaker! At least icebreakers are short. Team building can go on for days! If you have worked for any company or on any teams, you have probably been dragged into teambuilding activities. These activities predicated on the notions that “we need team building because the team is new (best case scenario), or because we have problems and personal conflicts within the team.” No sorry! Let me add one more! Because somebody at some point made HR believe that people LOVE teambuilding activities and HR’s engagement strategy now includes it, whether we need teambuilding or not.
But do we really need it? If so, when? We come back to this later but first, let’s see what HR and managers think we need. The list of absurd activities like the ones below I had to be part of or one can find on the internet is endless.
A senior manager and HR director discussed our team building options back in around 2015.
HR – It needs to be somewhere away from the hotel so people don’t think about work (she is forgetting that people are glued to their work phones and are totally consumed by work)
Manager – Yes, it is a good idea. Also, it has to be fun and lots of games (at this point im rolling my eyes all the way to Brazil and back). Maybe a competition of some sort but not too difficult. Singing or dancing perhaps would be received well (now im falling of my chair and stop typing my email).
- Food, we mustn’t forget the food. It is very important for people (no darling food is not very important as long as we are not on the brink of starvation. We can go home and eat, just give us something small that sustains us during the day otherwise, we can bring our food). Now, I was thinking that we could rent a teambuilding venue where those guys arrange the activities or if the budget is an issue, we could do it in our ballroom, and HR can run different funny activities.
- Yes, I loved last year’s paper, scissors, rock game. Do you remember how Laura got upset when they didn’t win? (now I want to leave but stay out of morbid curiosity to see where this is going)
- Oh yes, that was something wasn’t it? This year I’m thinking tower building, puzzle completion, the toilet roll game, and maybe the smarties game where you have to hold a straw in your mouth and transfer the candies to another ball by sucking them up (this is where I thought; I am calling sick”)
- Or maybe we could go to the Escape Room place and have an intellectual activity (thank god he is not such a dollop after all)
- Ok. I will put together a list of ideas and we run it through the managers
These are the types of painful conversations you have to witness when you work in HR. I deal with this ridiculousness by keeping quiet and then putting my ideas across to improve the situation marginally. I learned a long time ago that arguing is useless. These ridiculous practices are fundamentally embedded into corporate practices removing them would be harder than denying Hungarians from Gulyas (Hungarian soup known as Goulash). So, what happened with this team building? We went to the Escape Room which wasn’t too bad I rather liked the intellectual challenges. After we all escaped, the corporate trainer of that establishment run some debriefing that was meant to bring us together, yet it didn’t. And that is the problem with these activities. They serve no purpose whatsoever.
The problem with team building exercises is that they are completely pointless and even insulting because they imply that if colleagues spend more time together doing ridiculous things, solving non-work-related problems together, singing, dancing, or doing sack races, would work more effectively and cohesively together in the future! FALSE!
When there is low performance, conflict, rivalry, poor communication, or straightforward animosity within a team it is because problems are ignored. I hate to break it, but no teambuilding or pizza party will solve that! The fallacy is that the leader must solve the problem with the employees. False!
It is a leadership problem.
Why? Because she never had the humility to look into the mirror and say, "I am letting my team down by allowing the toxic culture fester in the restaurant that I am in charge of."
Instead, she blamed everyone else, so I said to her, "You are in charge. If anybody ever talked to or treated my team this way, I would remove their head". She didn't reply.
She started well to address the problem. First, she sat down with every employee to collect more feedback and reassure them that they have been heard. But then, nothing happened apart from sharing the same information with the supervisors and the obnoxious manager. This raised awareness, and somewhat the behaviour has changed, for a while at least.
Instead of addressing all the staff's points, she organized a yacht party for everyone. Yay! Dragging everybody to a yacht party will solve all her problems like absences, long working hours, poorly trained staff, low morale, and high turnover. Surely, she knew it is not the solution, but she was out of her depth. She couldn't handle a 28-year-old toddler (floor manager) throwing his toy out of the pram each time something is to his dislike; instead, she put a band-aid on the problem in the form of a yacht party. But as we know, a band-aid is not a remedy to a gaping wound. It is just to cover it until it gets treated or until the body heals it. Not sure which option she was hoping for.
Band-aids are distractions from the inability of the leaders, to tell the truth about what is really happening on their teams.
So the next time you think you need teambuilding, what you really need is taking a good look at the person leading that team.
INSTEAD of Team Building:
- Have the guts to have hard uncomfortable conversations that will solve your problems. If not, please don't go near managerial roles. You will let everybody down.
- Build an environment in which the staff is not at each other’s throats, so you don’t need to have to organize teambuilding. Build procedures and policies, manning etc. in a way that it creates a pleasant, efficient, and productive work environment.
- Hire competent people because the meme is true “Nothing will kill a great employee than watching you tolerate a bad one.” Many team conflicts and frustration derive from incompetent colleagues who are either holding the team back or just annoy the hell out of everyone. This inevitably leads to animosity and no gingerbread house will solve for it.
- Organize useful team building sessions! Yes, there are useful team building activities that facilitate the development of self-awareness about skills, strengths & personality traits. Once individuals understand themselves, they learn how to communicate the value they bring to the team, what are their needs to produce high performance and be motivated, how the environment looks like in which they get demotivated, what it is they like and what it is they absolutely hate. How they solve problems and how they build relationships. How they influence others, how they think, and how they get things done. Aren’t this information more useful for a team than “what kind of fruit I would like to be?” or “what three things we have in common?”. Through my company, I conduct CliftonStrengths based team building. Now I am developing a Personality assessment (Big 5) based team building that helps executives answer all those questions about themselves and communicate them to their teams, families, and friends. The combination of Strengths & Personality assessment gives a very clear picture about the individual’s genetic capabilities without all the platitudes of what they could be. Instead, we deal with and leverage what they actually have. It is a very pragmatic approach to self & team development. You see people’s eyes open up when they realize “I am a very agreeable person maybe that is why my ideas are never being heard” or “My Strengths are distancing me from others, but I need that space to think and I am ok with that”.
- If you really want activities to make it a regular event such as weekly tennis, volleyball, football etc… Sports rules will give the activity a structure but other than that, people are free to do whatever they want. The frequency of the event will gel the team together better than any stupid infrequent activity. If you don’t fancy sport and would prefer a quick drink after work, do that regularly. People will join you trust me, and they will start organizing themselves accordingly. What you want to build is good relationships amongst the team members, not a team. Once you have the relationship sorted the team will build itself.
- A hackathon with each team participating as one team is a pretty good team-building exercise if you ask me. You don’t have to be a programmer. The goal of any Hackathon is to develop creative solutions to address current and future challenges. Your challenge might be low team morale so bring them together and find the solution TOGETHER.
- And sometimes you build a team one piece at a time like a puzzle. What that means is one-to-one coaching with people who are destroying team morale (like the chef). In this case, address those particular people directly and be the bridge between the team and the perpetrator. Coaching helps the person understand his or her impact on the team and how that can be addressed. People will change but you MUST go with the intention of helping not with the intention of destroying and defeating that person. When you do that, they will listen.