Leadership Tip #19: How “Team Building” Activities Help and Hurt People and Teams

Dan, a Vice President, worries that his teams work more as individuals than as teams. He's a physically active guy and decided that teams can choose from these activities: a zip line course, a hike up and down a local mountain, or an escape room. But when he suggested these ideas to one of his directors, Terry, she objected.

“Do you see these crutches?” she asked.

“Of course,” Dan said. “But you'll be off them soon, right?”

“In another six weeks,” Terry said. “And then I'll need PT to get back all the strength I lost. You deliberately created activities that exclude me—and other not-quite-fully-abled people. I'm not sure how I feel yet, but they might feel it as discrimination.”

Dan's mouth dropped open.

Terry wasn't done. “Worse, you didn't allow us to choose the team building we want. You decided for us. Is that really what you want?”

Dan started to talk. “I can fix that.”

Terry held up her hand. “I'm not done. You've totally forgotten this one fact: Our work does not depend on how well people act physically. Our work depends on how well we act together to solve product issues for our customers. Physical team building does not affect that collaboration at all. It might make you feel better, but it sure doesn't make anyone else feel better.”

Dan shook his head. “I just want us to work better together at all levels.”

Terry said, “Then let's have a different conversation about what we need for team building and how we'll do it.”

Physical Team Building is Incongruent with Knowledge Work

Let's consider what we need for team building: to balance the self, the other, and the context to collaborate better.
The more we collaborate as teams, regardless of the “level” of the people doing the work, the more effective we can be. However, physical team building rarely has any effect on creating collaborative teams. Those activities might be fun for able-bodied people. However, here are results I've seen with physical “team building” activities:

  • Some teams created cliques based on the people who succeeded physically and those who didn't. (Remember being picked for physical-education teams back in school? Yeah. Same exact dynamic.) Those cliques then ignored some supposed team members.
  • The people who are not as physically capable (for any reason) often feel a drop in self-esteem.
  • For whatever reason, people who don't appreciate physical activities get angry with the situation. (I do.)  When that happens, we are not in a good state for collaborating with other people.

Too often, physical “team building” creates incongruence. The physical activities inflict emotional pain—and other possible hurts—on people and teams.

But, you have a very easy way to build collaboration “into” teams at work to help the teams. Do the work—and create and refine the culture as you do.

Build Teams With the Team's Work

Here's what we might need to do to build collaborative teams. In my experience, it's about the environment at work:

When teams decide and refine how to work together, they can become a collaborative team, at any level. You might discover the team can't collaborate, because they don't have a common goal. Fix that first. If everyone is off on “their” own goals, they cannot work together as a team.

But let's circle back to the start and address the manager's role in team building.

Managers Create the Environment for Effective Teams

Dan noticed a problem. Good. Without discussing what he saw with the teams, he decided what to do. Why did he not delegate this decision to each and every team?

In Practical Ways to Manage Yourself, I suggested managers consider delegating all of these items to the team:

  • Project practices (how to organize)
  • Work practices (how to do the daily work)
  • Technical practices (how to create excellence in the work)

When Dan decided for the team—especially the management team—he did not delegate the “project” or work practices. (Management teams might not have projects, as such.)

Dan meant well—but he forgot that he's supposed to create the environment, the culture. When he decides for other people and teams, he reduces trust and psychological safety. Exactly what he does not want to do.

Too many team building activities harm people and teams. Instead, help your teams with a congruent approach to team building.

As a manager:

  1. Explain what you see to the team in question.
  2. Ask how you can support any experiments.
  3. Make sure you clarify their one, single, overarching goal.
  4. Clarify that they understand how to offer and receive feedback with each other.
  5. If they have not yet defined their values, ask them to do so.
  6. Reward flow efficiency actions, not resource efficiency.

No one needs potentially harmful physical activities to build teams. You can do a better job to help and support those teams—when teams work on the work together. And, when they go meta to work on the environment that creates that work.

This is part of the intermittent series of leadership tips.

2 thoughts on “Leadership Tip #19: How “Team Building” Activities Help and Hurt People and Teams”

    1. Thanks, Adam. That’s a great post. I love what you said at the end: “Because most folks are very different on the river than in the office.” Exactly my experience. Thanks.

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