If you listened to Google’s search results on how to improve teamwork, you’d be packing up your dysfunctional team and sending them to a retreat full of trust falls and white-water rafting.
The hope is that these activities will unlock stuck tongues, melt away tensions, and knit together a highly communicative dream team.
But, research shows that the chance of this happening is slim to none. In fact, these forced social situations can do more harm than good.
So, before you pour your money away and cross “team building” off your checklist, take a look at the details.
4 reasons why team building activities for work fail
1. It’s socializing, not team building
The first thing to note is that there’s a big difference between socializing and team building. And a lot of the activities that are sold as team building exercises actually just provide people with the chance to socialize.
Kenneth Stålsett, who wrote his doctoral thesis on team development, explained:
“It’s fine to have fun at work, but there’s no research showing that activities like these result in improved workplace interaction afterwards—even though corporate team building companies may claim otherwise.”
If you want your team’s collaboration to improve in a work-relevant way, the team building should be built around developing skills they’ll need in their workplace. Teaching your team how to geocache while half of them are blindfolded isn’t going to improve their ability to efficiently work through a project timeline together.
Shel Holtz, an Accredited Business Communicator and principal of Holtz Communication + Technology, recounts one such example of a group team building exercise while working at a previous company:
“I remember sitting back-to-back with the vice president of the Compensation department, arms locked, and being told we needed to figure out how to stand up without unlocking our arms. I have other vague memories of the weekend, including the heartfelt celebration when it was over. By God, we believed we had bonded as a team.
“Two weeks later, we were locked in a room for seven hours working to cut the HR budget by some ridiculous amount. It turned out that all that “team-building” we’d gone through in the mountains had absolutely no bearing on our real-world reality.”
This is probably something that a lot of people can relate to.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with encouraging socialization within your team. That’s great. Personally, I feel like my Friday afternoon coffee date with my teammates has helped us get to know each other a bit more and break down formality barriers.
But, socialization shouldn’t be mandatory.
Teammates are obliged to work cohesively, but they should not be forced into socializing with each other.
2. People feel embarrassed, uncomfortable, and vulnerable
Another major issue with these types of away-day activities is that they have the ability to make individuals feel incredibly uncomfortable. You’re asking people to take part in activities that are irrelevant to their role and often these rely on physical aptitude, or at least confidence.
Imagine a self-conscious office manager with a fear of heights being asked to zipline from one tree-top to another. This is an idea she dreads and it’s likely she’ll feel extremely exposed, emotionally. Even if she does manage to complete the task, it’s likely she’ll be left feeling embarrassed and less able than her team.
It’s always wise to remember that, while some thrive at team endurance tests, others get extremely anxious about the idea.
Also, if there are real problems within your team—if there are cliques or factions—it’s easy to see how physical activities such as this could make things worse. People who already felt ostracized may end up feeling more so.
3. You’ll reinforce the norms
Often the goal of a team building away-day is to encourage communication and mingling between teammates or across different teams. However, unless well facilitated, this rarely happens.
“Let’s say that a business with 30 employees goes on a company retreat to work on team development. As a rule, people spend most of their time with only a few of their colleagues—generally the ones they already know from before,” says Stålsett.
This can actually serve to reinforce cliques or divisions in teams, and fails to encourage socialization.
Also, if you’re seeking to mix things up in your team, giving people group challenges with little facilitation will often result in the reinforcement of character roles within the group. The strong characters becoming stronger, and quiet characters getting quieter.
4. The competition isn’t always healthy
If you’ve got one or two competitive souls on your team, pitching them against each other in a race to complete a team task doesn’t always generate the best outcomes. As you can imagine, emotions easily start to run high and the energy can turn negative.
It’s better to focus on constructive group exercises, that bring people together, rather than competitive ones that can turn people against each other.
Real-life team building activities for work
Trying to prescribe team-building exercises that work for every person and every team is challenging, if not impossible. Every team is different. Some challenges may be commonplace-such as miscommunication—but the reasons for this happening will depend on the team’s unique personalities and circumstances.
However, what’s clear (from Stålsett’s research, as well as others) is that team building exercises should be work relevant.
Kate Mercer, cofounder of the Leaders Lab consultancy, suggests that the best type of team building exercises to undertake are those that your team should be doing anyway—such as creating a long-term strategy plan.
"They’re [employees] doing useful stuff which will save hours of time and effort back in the real world and there’s no gap to bridge when they get back to the office. They’ve been working together on real tasks and can simply carry that on.
“It’s called experiential learning and it’s proven to be the way mature adults learn new skills and behaviour most effectively.”
4 ways to approach team building activities
On researching this further, I found a 2017 study of “teamwork interventions that were carried out with the purpose of improving teamwork and team performance.”
Interestingly, the researchers found that teamwork interventions fall into four broad approaches (all of which took part in the team’s working environment or a classroom/teaching setting):
Lectures/presentations: In which teams are being provided with information on teamwork.
Interactive workshops: In which “team members take part in various group activities, such as having discussions about the team’s purposes and goals”.
Simulation training: In which the team “experientially enact various teamwork skills, such as interpersonal communication and coordination, in an environment that mimics upcoming team tasks (e.g. airline simulators or medical patient manikins)”.
Team reviews in-situ: “Teamwork can also be fostered by incorporating team reviews in-situ (i.e. where the team actually performs its tasks), which allows teams to monitor/review their quality of teamwork on an ongoing basis.” These generally include team briefs before, during, and/or after the team task execution.
So, when considering how to improve teamwork, it would be worthwhile to work on a task with one of these approaches in mind.
Take note! The research “suggests that simply providing educational lectures wherein team members passively learn about teamwork is not an effective way of improving teamwork.”
So, while non-work-relevant group activities may not improve teamwork, simply giving a one-way push of information through lecture format is not effective either.
“When taken together these findings suggest that teamwork training should incorporate experiential activities that provide participants with more active ways of learning and practising teamwork.”
Team building activities for work don’t have to be groan-inducing exercises that require everyone to hold hands or sing Kumbaya. In fact, those types of team building activities may do little to deliver long lasting results. If you want to bring your team together, focus on improving how you complete work-relevant tasks and bring an awareness to the way in which you approach these.