First, the bad news. Most team building activities just don’t work. Most games and events that managers and executives organize to build more teamwork only intensify whatever culture is already present.
So, for instance, if a group has a real team culture already, and they go bowling or play laser tag or build a house for a needy family, then at the end of the activity, they will likely improve their culture.
If a group is competitive, and they do the same activities, they will likely become even more competitive. In fact, some participants may leave the activity thinking, “I’m going to get that show-off next time!.” If the participants have mistrust or have a culture of miscommunication, then after the activity, they will likely resent being forced to interact with people that they really just don’t like.
A Few Examples of Team Building Activities that Work Because the Culture Is Positive.
A Surprise Outing for Your Team.
When I was in high school, I worked for a fast-food franchise, and one of my coworkers was the boss’ son. One Friday evening, the crew decided to meet on the weekend to go see a movie together. We all met at the theater the next day, and the boss showed up with his son and paid for all of the tickets for the entire crew. That happened decades ago, but I still remember the gesture, because it was my boss showing a genuine appreciation for all of the hard work that we had done. He was a great boss who respected his crew, and we respected each other. So going to a movie together really built additional team culture.
Get Your Team Involved in a Sporting Activity.
A couple of years later, I worked in a hospital, and each employee in my department had a role dependent upon another coworker. So we had to work really well together, or we’d all fail. I joined the department volleyball team, and we were terrible at volleyball. I’m not sure if we ever even won a game. We did have a lot of fun. In addition, we worked better together at work as well.
A Couple of Examples of How Team Building Can Backfire If the Culture Is Negative.
Competition Drives Progress, But It Can Also Drive In-Fighting.
After college, I worked for a big oil company, and the culture was very competitive. When a job opening came up, anyone in line for a promotion fought like dogs to make themselves look good. Some resorted to trying to make their coworkers look bad in the process.
The first year that I was there, we had a huge company picnic ending with the annual softball game. On one at-bat, a coworker from the opposing team hit a high pop-up to center-field. Our extra center-fielder (we had two so that everyone got to play) missed the catch. Knowing that the mistake would likely cost the team a run, he tried to throw the ball all the way to home plate. He missed by a mile. As a result, the other team ended up scoring a second run.
My coworker felt really bad. Instead of offering supportive guidance, the 2nd baseman turning back to him and said, “Next time, just throw the ball to me.” Of course, he glared at the poor guy while he said it. Basically, something that should have been fun and helpful became more of a disappointment.
Team Building for a Bunch of People Who Are Not a Team Will Not Make Them a Team.
One final example. One of the local Chambers of Commerce had a year-long leadership development program. When I was first starting my own leadership company, I thought it would be a good idea to attend. About mid-way through the year, our group traveled to a Ropes Course for some “team building.”
I have to say that I really enjoyed the activity, and I really felt good after I finished. Because I have a big fear of heights, many of the things that we did that day were a big challenge for me. For most groups, a Ropes Course would have also had a benefit to teamwork.
Alas though, the group that I was a part of had a big problem… We weren’t a team. We were a group of independent entrepreneurs. Sure, some of us worked together on projects. However, most of us only saw each other for a few hours once a month at the meetings. So a shared-experience style of team building was a waste for us. Many companies have a similar result when they do an event for salespeople. Because salespeople tend to work alone, getting a group of salespeople together to bond or to improve teamwork is usually a wasted activity.
Build Your Culture First, Then Add Some Fun to Your Meeting Agenda.
So, do good team building activities work? Absolutely. However, to build a good team culture, just organizing a fun outing with your employees won’t help a lot. The first step is to create an atmosphere within your office that people want to be a part of. Below are a few tips that may help.
- Give Positive as Well Negative: When times are tough, we tend to focus exclusively on the negative. To be a good leader, though, look for the positives in your employees and compliment them more.
- Share Success Stories: One of the most often complaints that workers have about their employers is that they don’t see how their job/role adds to the success of the company. Just by sharing a few success stories around the office, you can improve morale dramatically.
- Encourage Teamwork when Roles are Interdependent: Set goals for completed activities and reward the group for working well together.
- Avoid Lumping Independent Roles into a Shared Goal: Many leaders have a “teamwork is everything” attitude, even when job functions have no interaction or dependency on each other. Don’t try to force teamwork.
- Have Fun: Even if your job is hard, have some fun. Start a meeting with a funny video or a funny bumper sticker. Lighten up and enjoy yourself a little.
After you have successfully created a fun culture around the workplace, then any team activity you invest in will have fantastic results! (By the way, if you are looking for a shortcut, try Creating a Team Culture.)