For many, September signifies the start of a new school year.  For some it also conjures up images of baseball World Series or the start of the National Hockey League season.  For me, sadly, September brings back not so fond memories of a time-honoured, ancient ritual in the workplace:  the annual company sponsored, management-sanctioned, and compulsory (although no one in authority will ever actually admit to it!) team-building exercise.  Just thinking about it makes me cringe in horror.

If you are fortunate enough to have avoided this unsettling experience then consider yourself lucky, and please accept my congratulations.  If you have never had to undergo this ritual, then be prepared.

What’s so bad about team building?

What is a team building exercise?  As suggested, it is a management supported initiative that usually occurs prior to or near the end of the fiscal year.  In several places where I worked during my career our senior management, at about the third or fourth fiscal quarter, decided that it was important to bring their employees together to share in a little extra-curricular frivolity and goodwill.  In truth, many managers were cognizant of their failure throughout the year to properly recognize and acknowledge the work performed by their team.  Many were also facing an employee engagement survey and wanted to do whatever it took to improve morale and boost their scores and, by inference, their performance bonus. 

If the goal were simply to get together, watch a ball game, have a few beers and eat some pizza I wouldn’t have an issue.  Where these events go horribly “off the rails” is when senior management precedes this entertainment with an exercise, group activity or undertaking designed to promote a particular skill or attribute.  It’s hard to say what is more annoying:  watching grown men and women engage in some kind of silly feat or competition designed to develop a myriad of skills, or the naivete of management who believe an afternoon of team competition can instill the kind of mind-set and attitudes necessary for success.

When Bad Becomes Just Plain Silly

As mentioned, I’ve suffered through so many of these sophomoric undertakings I could probably write a book.  Some of the more memorable experiences ones were these:

  • A treasure hunt in downtown Toronto during which teams of six employees were tasked with a various tasks ranging from counting the number of steps at the Old Toronto City Hall to finding out which store in the Eaton’s Centre sold a particular product;
  • Pairing up with another employee, interviewing them, and then sharing an introduction and highlights of that person’s life with the rest of department members;
  • A gift-wrapping contest in which groups of four sitting at tables were given wrapping paper, scissors, tape and bows, and instructed to wrap a box with an award given to the team with the most artistic effort;
  • A Field Day exercise at the Toronto Islands during which random teams comprised of employees from different departments throughout the company were challenged in a variety of stimulating athletic pursuits including an egg and spoon relay, an obstacle course, a bean-bag toss, and the ubiquitous wheelbarrow race.
Personality assessments and team building

Personality assessments may be a more constructive activity in team building than organized games (Photo courtesy of Dennis Futalan and Pexels)

You Get What You Reward

I was never quite sure whether the geniuses who invented these team building exercises seriously believed in the relevance and usefulness of these initiatives, or whether they were afflicted with some sado-masochistic desire to inflict pain and embarrassment on the rest of us unwitting victims. Suffice to say that most of us who had to suffer through this silliness found it wasteful, nonsensical and absurd.  Expecting employees to endure this idiocy on the flimsy pretext that it somehow helped them bond more closely with their teammates is naïve in the extreme.  If you expect adults to behave like professionals then try treating them as such.

One Team Building Exercise Worth Considering

Team building is really about supporting and communicating effectively with others in your department and organization.  In order to support them you really have to get to know them and understand what makes them tick.  One method of doing this is through psychometric assessments.

The best team building exercise I’ve ever seen involved the use of Personality Dimensions.  For those who don’t know Personality Dimensions is an assessment tool that is based on four different personality types: 1) Greens (Introspective); 2) Blues (People Focused); 3) Golds (Organizers); and 4) Oranges (Enterprising). In this team building exercise each employee was asked to self-assess based on a pre-determined list of questions.  Once everyone’s type had been assessed employees were sorted according to their colours.  Thereafter, the teams were shuffled so that each team had interactions with members of different colours.  Each team was then given a specific work-related problem or issue to examine germane to the department, and were asked to develop solutions to each problem.

I’ve seen a variation of this approach used with Myers-Briggs Profiles. The premise of both exercises is that in order to first understand others one first needs to understand oneself.  The value of this from a team perspective is that in order to cooperate and understand it helps to know the styles, personality types and predisposition of others.

A Final Thought…

If you want to help your team the best place to start is by treating them like adults.  If you really believe in the inherent value of team building then the best place to start is with meaningful undertakings that are geared towards creating awareness, understanding and cooperation.  That starts with sharing insights and promoting understanding and tolerance.

As for the games, they are best left to children.