Team-building turns team players into alienated critics

Team-building may have driven this author out of corporate life into consultant work. He tells you why in this essay.

The leaders of Allergan’s Human Resources department—about a dozen of us—spent a weekend in the early 1990s at a retreat in the mountains somewhere not far from corporate headquarters in Irvine, California. The retreat was designed to host a “ropes course,” an experience that’s supposed to strengthen a team.

These courses—also called a “challenge course”—engage participants in outdoor activities involving cables, ropes, and obstacles, along with “low” activities (those that take place on the ground) such as figuring out how to ford a river. It’s designed to (as one organization puts it) “develop confidence, trust, support, communication, cooperation and leadership skills.”

I remember sitting back-to-back with the vice president of the Compensation department, arms locked, and being told we needed to figure out how to stand up without unlocking our arms. I have other vague memories of the weekend, including the heartfelt celebration when it was over. By God, we believed we had bonded as a team.

Two weeks later, we were locked in a room for seven hours working to cut the HR budget by some ridiculous amount. All that “team-building” we’d gone through in the mountains had absolutely no bearing on our real-world reality.

I have always viewed team-building exercises with a high degree of cynicism. The cynic in me was re-ignited when I read that HSBC had fired six employees for creating a video in which five pretended to be ISIS members “beheading” the sixth. According to the report…

In the video, one of the men shouts “Allahu Akbar”—Arabic for “God is great,” which is what has been said in some of the ISIS videos showing executions of hostages.

The banker playing the role of hostage is dressed in an orange jump suit and kneeling in front of the others with his head down, the same as some of the executed hostages. The other men are dressed in dark clothing with masks covering their faces. They give a whooping war cry and brandish what appears to be a coat hanger as if it’s a knife, and then break up into laughter.

The kicker: The six members of a London-based HSBC legal department created the video as part of a team-building exercise.

Did you ever wonder why sports teams don’t go out on team-building exercises? It’s because they bond as a team through the very act of being a team. No artificial exercise can replicate that. No ginned-up activity can help a team get better at what it was brought together to do.

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In short, team-building exercises and activities are total bullshit.

Leaders who think non-sequitur team-building is necessary most likely are terrible team leaders. It might make them feel better to check off a box—”There, I’ve taken care of team-building”—but it does nothing to create a team that can achieve great things in their actual jobs.

Not many people love team-building exercises

To see if I was alone in this belief, I asked colleagues to share their team-building experiences. Here’s a sampling of the responses I got.

  • A communications retreat where we were given stripper names instead of our regular names. You should have seen the look on my very conservative boss’ face.
  • It involved people splitting up into pairs, standing face-to-face and making “mirror” motions. One person moves to the left, the other person moves to the left. One person holds up a hand, the other person holds up a hand. One hand moves in a circular motion, the other one…you get the picture. And no laughing or smiling. Just typing this description gives me the willies.
  • Making cardboard and duct tape boats in late October.
  • No joke, watching team members stretch latex gloves over their heads and try to inflate them the fastest.
  • I had one small tech company that sent us off on a “scavenger hunt” across a huge city park, and it was about 90 degrees. We were baking for an hour as we searched; it was real fun.
  • Forced Karaoke.
  • An entire management team on two houseboats for four days going through the locks in the Trent Severn waterway. Mostly men and three women. Made the mistake of letting the guys do the grocery shopping so lots of meat and junk food…no vegetables or fruit. After not showering for four days, we really got to know each other.
  • Have everyone stand together, hold hands, and try to untangle yourselves so you end up in a circle. Have done this a million times.
  • Our internal comms group went through a team-building exercise that was supposed to identify positive and negative behavior. The goal was always to be “above the line.” No negative thoughts or attitudes were allowed. And our communications began to reflect this fantasyland, which only lacked unicorns, puppies and glitter. Needless to say, this exercise didn’t translate well to a group of trained journalists. Wait, I think I just dropped below the line. Damn!
  • Bowling, where trophies were awarded for best and worst. Seriously, is it not bad enough to finish last without having the humiliation of a trophy?

Then there was the individual who told me privately (with permission to include in this post) about an exercise in which the leader asked each participant to share a formative experience that led them to where they were today. Each told horrific stories my friend—who was new to the company—found appalling and upsetting. My friend passed, unwilling to convey a similar experience to a roomful of near-strangers, and was ostracized for not engaging.

I have no doubt the experience may have been cathartic, but nowhere have I seen evidence that knowing the darkest moments your fellow team members have experienced helps the team function better.

Another friend recounted her own experience with a ropes course:

I am deathly afraid of heights. Still, I was determined. Mind over matter, etc. Very long story short, I was standing on the cut-off top of a tree (35-40′), had to leap to another tree and instantly grab hold of the rebar pegs to hang on to the new tree. {insert some weeping, cheering, self-doubt, whole-body shaking, and determination that swelled up from who-knows-where} I jumped. As my body slammed into the destination tree, my knee slammed into one of those rebar pegs. Technically, it went under the knee cap. Decades later, I still cannot walk or hike anywhere that has much of an incline, have to avoid squats and lunges (and any other knee-challenging exercise). The End.

A thread runs through several of these recollections: Physical activities tend to favor those members of the team who enjoy and excel at physical activity; they also tend to favor extroverts. A bookish introvert can be an integral member of an office team. But he can be made to feel less a member of a team after participating in an outdoor challenge-based team-building exercise.

No doubt you have your own recollection of an unpleasant or pointless exercise in which you were required to participate that did nothing to strengthen your team.

(Side note: Several of the comments I received addressed Meyers-Briggs-type personality analyses. These are a separate issue. I may tackle it one of these days.)

(Second side note: I have no problem getting a team together outside of work to blow off steam and have fun. In fact, a little extracurricular fun can be beneficial. It’s the structured activities designed for team-building that make me nuts.)

How to really build a team

If we cancel all the team-building activities (and put the people who run those ropes courses out of work), what’s left? As one of the contributors to my thread on team-building exercises put it, “The best team building is to work on a big project together.”

Exactly. Success doesn’t depend on fording an imaginary river. Here’s what it involves:

A great leader—The biggest problem most teams encounter is a leader who wasn’t selected for his or her leadership skills. Rather, they were promoted into the position as the next step on the pay scale. Imagine if NFL head coaches were selected that way. “You’ve done a great job as an assistant coach, Bob, but you’re at the top of your pay grade, so we can’t increase your pay without promoting you. So congratulations, you’re now head coach.”

Great hires—Ensuring the people you bring onto a team are right for the team is crucial. This doesn’t just mean they’re “team players.” They also must be able to field their positions well. Among the most repeated business axioms that drive crazy is the one that insists “There is no ‘I’ in ‘team’.” (I appreciate the retorts, “No, but there is a ‘me’,” and “No, but there is an ‘I’ in ‘win.'”) Teams have to work well together, but each individual also must perform brilliantly in his or her job. Consider baseball. Working together is great, but if the second baseman can’t handle a line drive, the team won’t amount to much. In its heyday, the Los Angeles Dodgers infield of Steve Garvey, Dave Lopes, Bill Russell, and Ron Cey emulated exactly what I’m talking about: crazy individual skill and a magical ability to work together that came not from weekend scavenger hunts but from hard work and the experience of working together for a long time. Watch this short video and listen to players talk about what made this legendary infield click: a Hall-of-Fame manager who saw something in them and kept them together.

Clear goals and expectations—A team can accomplish a lot when they know what success is supposed to look like. It’s clear for a sports team: a higher score than the opponent. It should be equally clear-cut for a work team.

A real purpose—Team members need to know what it is they’re working to accomplish. What’s more, they need to have a sense that it’s something bigger than themselves, more important than their individual work goals.

The bigger picture—A work team is a small part of a large organization. A team needs to know where it fits in the company narrative, just as individual employees do, and how its work contributes. A baseball team is part of a larger organization that includes the front office, the coaching staff, the training staff, farm clubs, scouts, groundskeepers, and a host of others, all working towards a common goal: a great fan experience. How does the team contribute? By winning, of course. The stadium crew does it by maintaining a clean and inviting place to come spend an afternoon or evening. Everybody has a part to play. Everybody needs to know how playing their part contributes to the goal.

Autonomy—Great teams are not micromanaged. Leaders of great teams know how to coach and inspire, but they don’t try to guide every team action. If you have assembled the right people, setting a goal and outlining the restrictions they’ll face (budget, approvals, etc.) should be 90% of the solution. Autonomy also means letting the team select its own captain. Hal Steinbrenner didn’t anoint Derek Jeter captain of the New York Yankees; his fellow players did.

Recognition—People thrive on intrinsic rewards. Celebrating milestones and taking every opportunity to recognize the team’s accomplishments go a long way to motivatie the team to keep plugging. Inventing mechanisms that enable members of the team to recognize one another is equally important.

Shared values—There’s no question that a lot of corporate values statements are bunk, especially those that clash with the reality of the workplace. But when team members bring the same set of values to the table—the same principles that guide the way they get their work done—amazing things can happen.

Common to all of these is a simple truth about teams: The best teams emerge from the work they were brought together to do. So enough with the ropes courses, bowling competitions, cook-offs, and other activities that are supposed to build teams but don’t.

Unless checking off the team-building box is more important than actually building a team.

A version of this article first appeared on

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