ARTICLE 8: “We Do Off-Site Team Building Activities, Which Should Be Making Us A Better Team”

In the right context, there is nothing wrong with team building activities. They can break up a conference or a long meeting with something less business-like. They may be used as a way to encourage creativity. These are valid reasons although they are not always the best way to build a team.

We have all been involved in the ‘team building activity’ or what some might call ‘enforced fun.’ How many times have you made a raft out of oil drums, rope, and a few pieces of wood? Or made a contraption out of playing cards, string, drinking straws, and chewing gum? Or some other collection of random items.

The idea being to show how well the team can work together.

These things do have their place as mentioned – they can be fun – and my view is that is they should be for ‘fun.’ I don’t believe they truly help teams to work more effectively; moreover, I have yet to see one of these events help to create high-performing teams.

There is a high chance that you will have participated in one or more of these events. You may well have instigated such an activity to coincide with a conference or department meeting. Cast your mind back and ask yourself ‘did the team improve productivity once we returned to work.’ Can you honestly answer that with a resounding yes?

So, what’s the problem?

Well, there are a few. Team building rarely does that – build teams, I mean. How is the team built any better through raft building or treasure hunting? In the sales context, it often is counterproductive because sales people by their very nature are competitive. So, they compete against each other within the team they are attempting to build. This potentially has the impact of dividing the team rather than uniting them. It certainly won’t bring you high performance for the team. Perhaps in individuals, not in the team.

Rules which govern the way people work together in an office environment will not apply at these fun events.

These activities rarely help people to understand each other. It’s often a ‘who’s the most clever’ or ‘who has the wackiest ideas’ competition. There’s that word again – competition. You see, crossing rivers the fastest, building the tallest tower with straws, or making the best egg carrying parachute are not usually the most effective method to build teams. They often divide them. That is certainly not what you may have set out to do.

There is another major impact of these outdoor or practical activities. That is, many people get frustrated at these events. Not all of us are cut out to build rafts and so on. We are not all wanting to have that sort of fun. That too has a detrimental effect on team performance – especially if the manager ‘cops the blame’ for initiating something people don’t enjoy. Let alone enable them to work more closely with their colleagues.

Often the rules which govern the way people work together in an office environment will not apply at these fun events. This means people have to make things up as they go along. OK, there may be rules associated with the ‘team building activity,’ and people will often use them as a guide rather than something to be strictly followed.

This adds further confusion to the thinking of people in the team. Imagine, you are a junior member of an office-based team. You are invited to carry out an outdoor team activity. The rules say that you must work collaboratively with others during the activity. The rules also say that you need to challenge things that you disagree with – for the benefit of a good team outcome.

That may not be easy for a more junior team member. They may feel out of their depth and not be able to participate fully. They wouldn’t challenge more experienced or senior colleagues at the office – so why would they do so in a fun activity? There may be team members who are not based in the same office and are nevertheless participating in the activity. If you are the junior team member, it may be challenging for you to work collaboratively with those people if you’ve never met or worked with them previously.

There are some obvious benefits to team building activities. They can be fun – probably when done well that will be their greatest benefit. Nothing wrong with that. If the activity is outdoors, that too is good, providing some additional health benefits. And when debriefed properly, people will gain some insight to how they behaved during the activity.

The behaviour is what this is all about. Normally, during a team building scenario, there is a degree of pressure. Pressure to perform, to complete the activity – perhaps to win. My question is – how does that help you to work more effectively as a high-performing team? It shows you who is the most creative – maybe. Or it may identify the (so-called) natural leader. These people are not necessarily good leaders. They are simply the ones who have the most confidence to speak up in the group.

What are you really hoping to create in your team by holding a team building activity? Ponder that for a moment. I am pretty certain that the objective you had when setting up the ‘build the Eiffel Tower with a cereal packet, a ball of string, and a paper clip’ was to get your people to work more effectively together – AS A TEAM.