The Truth About Corporate Team-Building Events

In an age where team-based work environments have quickly become the new norm, it may be surprising to learn that many of the traditional “team-building” exercises which we’ve often equated with corporate bonding have not only become outdated, but in some cases, may actually be detrimental to your organization in the long run. Naturally, this is quite opposite of the originally intended effect.

partnership concept in his hand


According to contributor, Sylvia Pennington, high on the list of events disliked most by company employees are team-building activities such as rope courses, trust-developing exercise (where colleagues must catch each other as they fall), “The Amazing Race”-style scavenger hunts, or other types of human-endurance tests. While sincere in their objective, business leaders are often startled to witness a great portion of their staff completely disengaged when faced with these types of activities. What leaders may view as an enjoyable day of bonding and time away from daily routine is often perceived by workers as an obligatory – if not stressful – experience. Instead of reaping the projected advantages of these types of events, many employees can often be can be found watching the clock.

Why do many employees dislike team-building events?

Business journalist and Forbes contributor, Andrew Cave, notes four main reasons why extreme team-building exercises can pose a detrimental risk to an organization.

1.  Applied Knowledge Gap

The simple act of engaging in non-work related events with coworkers is often not enough to build the types of bonds and trust among employees that business leaders have in mind. While parallels can be drawn to highlight certain aspects of learning, it takes a great deal of skill to successfully bring the lessons back to the workplace, and properly apply them to each applicable circumstance.

2.  Fear of Embarrassment

Individuals who do not favor attention or those who may be less socially confident or fit may find role-playing or other extreme team-building practices to be a harrowing experience. There is a real fear of appearing inept in front of coworkers and superiors. Cave states, “[It’s] a mistake to claim glibly that it will be alright [the next day]. For some employees, team-building activities actually drive a wedge between them and their colleagues and employer, rather than bringing them together and fostering engagement and team loyalty”.

3.  Risk of Appearing to Patronize Workers

There is always a chance that employees may misinterpret such elaborate attempts to incentivize and draw teams together as patronizing or condescending. Furthermore, teams may sometimes view the veritable “fun and games” in a pressurized manner, or assume such enticements are necessary for the group to unite and produce excellent work.

4.  Mistaking Socializing for Team-Building

This is not to say that employees cannot or should not bond in a social manner. However, forcing those individuals who prefer to view one another as colleagues (and nothing more) into a highly social situation may not have the desired effect. In fact, Cave states that this can actually “create hostility, not togetherness, producing tensions that prevent teams [from] working well for customers and stakeholders”.

What are some team-strengthening alternatives?

According to Kate Mercer, cofounder of Leaders Lab consulting and author of “A Buzz In the Building: How to Build and Lead a Brilliant Organi[z]ation”, the most effective team-building practices are ones that all companies should be implementing anyway. For instance, creating short or long-term strategies or clarifying role aspects and accountability are far more beneficial where team building is concerned. “Real work” tasks should be the central “exercise” that assists with actually improving the quality of the team.

Mercer points out, “With skills facilitation, team members draw all the lessons they need to about how they communicate, operate in meetings, collaborate to get things done, and make decisions”. Employees are engaging in realistic tasks rather than having to figure out how to translate the activities from a team-building retreat into the workplace. Mercer continues, “It’s called experiential learning and it’s proven to be the way mature adults learn new skills and behavior most effectively”.

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The Takeaway

The success of team-building strategies may all come down to “obligation”. Companies should not avoid organizing social or leisure events for their staff if they so choose, yet participation should not be forced. Moreover, employees should never feel that their job is in jeopardy if they don’t partake in work-related social activities. As Mercer eloquently concludes, “You have an obligation to work effectively with your colleagues, but it should never be obligatory to play with them too”.

Further reading: Three Components of Experiential Learning In the Workplace


Fred Coon, CEO 

Stewart, Cooper & Coon, has helped thousands of decision makers and senior executives move up in their careers and achieve significantly improved financial packages within short time frames. Contact Fred Coon – 866-883-4200, Ext. 200