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The Problems with (Most) Team-Building Efforts and How to Avoid Them

A woman standing in front of a group of people in an office.

​Team-building events can be valued benefits for many employees if managed effectively. But far too often, they fall flat—and amount to costly expenditures that yield little to no value or, worse, hinder employee engagement.

These activities are often considered to provide benefit to employees; unfortunately, if employees don't like the events, they're not going to experience much benefit.  

Is There Any Benefit to Team-Building Events?

Team-building efforts can be effective, said Anne Zeitelhack, an executive board member of CBIZ Women's Advantage. But to ensure effectiveness, participants must understand what the term "team building" means. She points to the Oxford English Dictionary's definition: "The action or process of causing a group of people to work together effectively as a team, especially by means of activities and events designed to increase motivation and promote cooperation."

Too often, Zeitelhack said, "companies interpret the definition of 'team building' as simply doing something fun outside of the typical workday setting—rope courses, cooking classes, baseball games. When the focus is not defined or is social rather than building teams or experiential learning, team building will not occur."

Why Many Team-Building Efforts Fail to Achieve Results

Beth Perkins is people growth manager at O3 World, a digital product design and development organization. "In my experience, employees are immediately skeptical of team-building exercises," she said. "We've all experienced team-building exercises that felt pointless, silly or, worse, a waste of time. When will you need to build a special box to protect an egg from a fall? Why do you need to know how to build a tower out of dry spaghetti to support a marshmallow?"

Most employees, Perkins said, "would prefer an exercise that either helps them grow in their role in the company or helps them get to know their team on a deeper level." That's an important consideration that others also point to as a key factor in ensuring success with these activities.

How Can You Make Team-Building Events Valuable?

HR and organizational development experts say there are key factors that can boost the odds that team-building efforts will yield desired results.

First, remember that team building should be a process, not an event. Building strong teams takes time. Consider that your teams are likely always changing. New employees join the team, while other employees leave. Organizational objectives change. The workplace environment changes.

"Once-and-done events," said Cheri Torres, lead catalyst, speaker and author with Collaborative by Design, "often generate a blip in improvement, but it is not sustained. Team-building events that are sequenced over time, with follow up and cycles of action-learning, can be highly effective."

Second, tie measurable outcomes to these events. Having a clear and explicit understanding of what you want to accomplish—and why—as a result of a team-building event is critical, Zeitelhack said. Then the event can be designed to achieve those objectives. "Without focus or defined objectives, the event will likely not achieve value because it does not solve actual problems or issues a team may be facing."

Third, share the desired outcomes. "One of the most important ingredients to a successful team-building exercise is clarity," Perkins said. "Your team needs to understand what they're meant to get out of the exercise. If they understand the goal, they'll naturally be more engaged."

The more specific the goal, the better. "Building a strong team," for example, is a vague goal. A better goal statement would be "determining how to apply design thinking to create a better candidate experience during the interview process." Concrete goals help make team-building exercises feel more relevant, Perkins said.

Perkins gave an example of a team-building exercise she held with her company: a design slam. "We were broken into small teams and tasked with redesigning ATMs," she explained. "We had four people, two hours, and all the sticky notes and paper we needed to ideate and come up with a solution."

The session was valuable, she said, "because it served to make me better at my job—using design-thinking skills—and get to know some co-workers on a deeper level through team collaboration."

Team-building events should consider participant preferences and comfort zones. It's important, Zeitelhack said, to consider "activities that will not violate participants' dignity, privacy or personal space, or require intense physical ability or performances."

Torres added, "If you want to know what will make team events more appealing to employees, don't ask consultants or HR and L&D [learning and development] people. Ask employees. They know what they need to be more engaged, more collaborative, better performers."

Finally, be realistic in your expectations. "It is nearly impossible to select an event that will appeal to 100 percent of participants," Zeitelhack said. Recognize that you can't please everyone, every time.

"As an organization's growth managers," said Perkins, "[HR and learning and development professionals] need to ensure the exercises are designed to build skills and deepen personal relationships, not just generate a few quick laughs."

Lin Grensing-Pophal is a freelance writer in Chippewa Falls, Wis.


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