team-building exercises: a scourge upon the earth

by Ask a Manager on June 27, 2012

A reader writes:

I just read this article on the worst team building exercises people have been forced to participate in. I’d love to hear yours and your readers’ experiences — I’m sure there are some doozies out there!

My personal one is that we were doing team building/diversity training run by an incredibly artsy, unusual duo who even had an artist creating “art” with magic markers on large easels based on her impressions of what we were doing. One of the exercises involved everyone being assigned a greeting from a different culture. My greeting involved kissing people on each cheek. We had to go around the room and give our greeting to absolutely everyone we came across. Needless to say, it was one of the most awkward moments in my career there, and I did my best to avoid having to kiss the president or vice president of the org.

Eeuuww. I would have walked out, seriously. I have a very low tolerance for that kind of thing.

I’d love to hear about the worst team-building exercises people have been subjected to … and on the opposite side, I’m also interested in hearing from anyone who was part of a team-building exercise that you felt was effective and why. (I am a curmudgeonly skeptic about this stuff, but I’d love to hear a different perspective.)

 

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{ 337 comments… read them below or add one }

KellyK June 27, 2012 at 3:16 pm

Wow, they clearly didn’t think that one through!

Fortunately I haven’t been subjected to much in the way of team-building exercises.

My idea of a useful and effective team-building exercise is this: Whoever on the team wants to goes out for lunch together, schedule, workload, budget, and dietary concerns permitting, either regularly scheduled or randomly, depending entirely on the preferences of the team members. That’s it. Relaxed socialization is a great team-builder, but the minute it becomes mandatory or awkward, it loses any possible benefit.

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Lisa June 28, 2012 at 8:52 am

I completely agree. I also hate forced holiday parties that are scheduled to make sure everyone can go. My boss actually got mad because he thought it was a treat, and everyone had excuses for not going on this day or that day.

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KellyK June 28, 2012 at 1:11 pm

Yeah, the minute it’s required, it stops being a treat.

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Lexy June 27, 2012 at 3:19 pm

Caveat that this was in an academic setting… but it was a professional program so I think it’s sort of relevant?

We actually had a pretty okay “team building” event in this program that was facilitated by an improv/sketch comedy group that does these things.

The exercise involved having a conversation with another person. When one person began speaking the first word they said had to start with the same letter as the last letter of the last word said by the other person. (e.g. Person 1: “…so that’s how I feel about chocolate teapotS” Person 2: “Solid analysis of the issues…”)

It was actually useful because it forced you to really listen to what the other person said and let them finish their thought before you started speaking, which is something we don’t do very often.

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Laura June 27, 2012 at 4:22 pm

Totally unrelated but this reminded me – I had a dream about chocolate teapots last night! They were kind of a mess for actually holding tea.

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Ask a Manager June 27, 2012 at 8:32 pm

Yes! They are in people’s dreams now. This is good.

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Melissa February 7, 2013 at 2:29 pm

We do that teambuilder all the time in student affairs. I generally hate any and all teambuilders, but that one is okay for the same reasons you already stated.

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Jess June 27, 2012 at 3:29 pm

Alison, as a fellow introvert, have you ever read the book “Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking” by Susan Cain? She talks about things like team-building exercises being the brainchilds (brainchildren?) of extroverts, but not so appreciated by introverts in the workplace.

I thought of you when I read that book! I see so few examples of introverted leaders/managers, and sometimes it’s nice to see one with preferences close to my own.

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Liz in a Library June 27, 2012 at 3:34 pm

She’s great. She has a wonderful TED talk on introversion too.

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Jess June 27, 2012 at 4:11 pm

Yes, I’ve seen the TED talk too! It’s great.

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Samantha June 27, 2012 at 5:04 pm

Yes highly recommend both the book and the TED talk.

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MentalEngineer June 27, 2012 at 3:36 pm

As a hardcore introvert, every time I’ve encountered these exercises, I’ve simply flat-out refused to participate and read a book instead. Fortunately, I have yet to encounter one at a workplace, where there would presumably be adverse consequences for doing that.

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Jamie June 27, 2012 at 3:42 pm

This. Fortunately I’ve never been subjected to anything like the examples above – but anything involving kissing, or improv comedians? Yeah, I’m busy…and if I can’t be busy I have a lot of time on the books – I’d burn a day before I’d risk my career on whatever offensive responses I’d have to that.

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Eric June 27, 2012 at 8:33 pm

I’m an introvert and I do improv. But then again, I’m not being forced to.

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Anonymous June 27, 2012 at 5:40 pm

I’ve walked out of some.

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kac June 27, 2012 at 4:50 pm

For the record, I’m *very much* an extrovert and I cannot stand team building exercises.

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Charlie June 28, 2012 at 8:19 am

Ha! Yeah me too!

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merc June 28, 2012 at 12:18 pm

Agreed! I am very outgoing but hate hate HATE team building stuff. And they would always pick me to be the comic relief because of my personality, and I would be grouped with all introverts because I’m seen as the “fun” one. Ullgh I don’t miss that!

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Piper June 28, 2012 at 4:12 pm

Ditto to this! I’ve been subjected to bowling, laser tag, suggestions of paint ball, random silly communications exercises, countless “optional” potlucks, and more. I hate them.

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Ask a Manager June 27, 2012 at 9:00 pm

People keep telling me to read that! Perhaps I shall.

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Vicki July 8, 2012 at 9:07 pm

Do.

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Melissa February 7, 2013 at 2:32 pm

I’m an extravert (barely – when I take those tests I’m always like 57% extravert/43% introvert) and I hate team-building exercises. I can see why introverts hate them – they all assume that people draw energy from interacting with others, often in awkward or artificial scenarios, when that’s not the way that introverts draw energy. In fact, I would suspect that a fair number of extraverts don’t draw energy that way, either.

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Anon June 27, 2012 at 3:30 pm

My work had a teambuilding event (a few months before I started) where they told everybody to go into the conference room and BAM. Snakes. They’d got some kind of animal handler in. Some people left in protest.

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Anon June 27, 2012 at 3:30 pm

Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure there was a tarantula as well.

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Jessica June 29, 2012 at 5:41 pm

I’m pretty sure THAT would’ve been my queue to walk out. I absolutely cannot stand spiders. Any spider. Even tiny ones that aren’t hairy with big fangs.

Also, I’m an extrovert and absolutely, positively dread “team-building exercises.” Or those “ice breakers” that they have with new groups. Ugh.

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Jessica June 29, 2012 at 5:42 pm

Argh. *Cue

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Vicki July 8, 2012 at 9:11 pm

My tarantula story:

College. I was on the archery team. We went to a meet, 5 of us, and stayed with at the apartment of a friend who at been at our College the year before. 4 males, one female (me). The friend’s roommate (away that weekend) had a tarantula. Everyone kept daring the others to pick up the tarantula.
I hate spiders but a tarantula in a terrarium is somehow different for me. So big it’s just a hairy “thing”. So, I picked it up, gently, set it back down, and walked away.
I got a _lot_ of “cred” for that. (No one else touched it. INcluding the roommate.)

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KellyK June 27, 2012 at 3:32 pm

Wow. As many people are afraid of snakes, I’m amazed anyone thought that was a good idea.

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Kelly O June 27, 2012 at 3:39 pm

Um, you can bet I would be out before you could even realize what was going on. (For the record – same thing with clowns. I do not deal well with them. Seriously.)

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perrik June 27, 2012 at 4:12 pm

Now, if you mixed the snakes with the clowns, that would be awesome. Especially if the snakes were poisonous.

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Anonymous June 28, 2012 at 9:18 am

With all due respect, I don’t get the fear of clowns, let alone the hype surrounding the fear of clowns. Maybe for some it’s a legit fear, but I think more people say they are afraid than the amount that truly is.

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Kelly O June 28, 2012 at 10:00 am

Have you ever seen “It”?

I’ve always been weird about adults in costumes – as a kid I refused to sit in Santa’s lap, see the Easter Bunny, and apparently screamed in terror the first time I went to the circus and saw the clowns. Mom said no one even approached me. I was about four and was completely inconsolable at the sight of clowns.

I am a reasonable person and I can sit in the room with one if I have to, but I also have the choice to leave and that’s normally what I do. I don’t know if I can explain it properly, but it’s also hard to explain why I don’t visit friends who have pet snakes either. Don’t care how well it’s hemmed in its cage, unless you have Jack Hanna there, I am not convinced.

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Piper June 28, 2012 at 4:14 pm

I hate clowns. When I was a kid, I was deathly afraid of them to the point that if one came on the TV, I’d run out of the room screaming. I finally got over that, but I’m still not the biggest fan of them. I just find them sort of creepy now and if stuck somewhere with one, I’d prefer not to have sit right next to it.

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Jamie June 28, 2012 at 4:52 pm

This is exactly it for me, too. It’s something about the costume. I also hate those people in character at amusement parks – the whole thing freaks me out. Yet I was a fan of KISS in their make-up days. so apparently I have a rock exception.

And IT was the scariest movie ever – if I hated clowns before this pushed it into borderline phobia territory.

I did crack up at you explaining that you can sit in a room with one if you have to…and I am desperately curious as to how often this comes up for you? I’m picturing Kelly in a doctor’s waiting room, or in the lounge at Jiffy Lube and some clown sits down and starts reading a magazine.

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Kelly O June 29, 2012 at 12:04 pm

I worked at a university/medical school/hospital.

You would be surprised at how frequently clowns were part of my day. It’s hard to be cool when you’re stuck on an elevator with six of them. (For the purposes of visual aids, I did stare at one spot on the floor and start reciting the alphabet backwards to myself to take my mind off it.)

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JoAnna June 27, 2012 at 3:48 pm

Assuming I hadn’t passed out from fear and shock, I would have walked out and left the building. I have such a snake phobia.

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Jamie June 27, 2012 at 3:56 pm

I wouldn’t even be able to register being afraid of snakes – because I would be frozen in fear from the tarantula.

And clowns. Thanks Kelly – I actually shuddered reading about spiders and clowns in the same comment section! I don’t know which is creepier…or who decided that clowns were a nice motif for babies. You wouldn’t wall paper with a spider pattern for ‘lil junior…but the creepy white face of a clown staring at you while you sleep is okay? No wonder kids are so messed up.

Parents (and team bonding types) should stick with Winnie the Pooh. He never gave anyone nightmares.

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Laura L June 27, 2012 at 4:24 pm

But the Heffalumps (sp?) and Woozles (sp?) do. Or, at least, they gave Tigger nightmares. If I recall correctly.

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Stells June 27, 2012 at 4:59 pm

You can bet they all would have know what was going on when I ran screaming from the room. Severe anxiety + a major snake phobia means I would run out of the room, trampling people and screaming loud enough that the entire building could hear me.

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Malissa June 27, 2012 at 8:06 pm

I would call that hostile working conditions. As in I am going to be extremely hostile to anyone who would subject me to that.

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Katie L June 28, 2012 at 4:03 pm

Nothing promotes “team” like a common enemy.

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Mamie June 27, 2012 at 3:34 pm

Not work related, but I was in high school when the Columbine shootings happened, and there was all this buzz about the “Trenchcoat Mafia” at our school and would the same thing happen to us. So the administration booked a Breakfast Club/group therapy retreat where they picked one person from each clique/stereotype and had us do group therapy out in the woods together.
I was there representing, I don’t know, embittered poet girls? My group had a cheerleader, a basketball player, an intensely religious Christian girl, a Goth, and I forget whoall else. It worked, for me anyway, in that I started the trip convinced all these people were soulless idiots and/or bullies (I was kind of mean and pretentious in high school) and learned that they all had poignant struggles and deeply-felt lives.

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Josh S June 27, 2012 at 3:43 pm

Breakfast Club for the win!

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class factotum June 27, 2012 at 6:40 pm

Did you end up with the jock? Did the bad boy give his earring to the popular girl? We want to know!

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jmkenrick June 27, 2012 at 7:34 pm

Hey! My high school did that too!

We hung out in the woods and talked about our feelings. I think it was through this program: http://www.nccj.org/whatwedo/anytown.html

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HB June 28, 2012 at 11:38 am

I was an adult leader at “Mini-Town” and it was AWESOME. Of course, I am a super extrovert and former camp counselor of 7 summers, so I love all things relating to ice breakers, energizers, team building, games, songs, etc. :) I have nothing bad to say about any of the goofy team building stuff I’ve had to do over the years – I actually enjoy that kind of stuff. But back to Mini Town, there is indeed a lot of talking about feelings in the woods, but it was so amazing to see a kid’s eyes light up when they “get it” in a rather adult discussion about diversity and oppression.

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Piper June 28, 2012 at 4:16 pm

OMG. This is awesome (because of The Breakfast Club reference) and horrifying all at the same time.

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Jamie June 27, 2012 at 3:37 pm

I have a great team building exercise that I use:

1. Meetings only when required with an agenda and enforced time limits.

2. Everyone disperses to work on their part of the project in the way that works best for each.

3. Open door philosophy for questions and clarification – check-ins and follow ups via email to make sure all is on track.

4. Team is built and bond solidified by successful completion of project.

5. People are appropriately rewarded for their efforts.

IMO, that’s how you build a team – by working projects in a well organized fashion with good results and appropriate recognition. I’ve never seen the need for anything beyond that.

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Kelly O June 27, 2012 at 3:42 pm

Dude, seriously I would love to have a boss like that. I daydream about that all the time. You know, where people respect each other, and talk like adults, and you can ask clarifying questions without feeling like you’re handing in a pre-resignation, and where someone might actually say “hey, good job” if you, you know, do a good job.

I bet you have vacation and sick time too… (picture me staring wistfully off in the distance as a single dove flies into the afternoon sky…)

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Jamie June 27, 2012 at 3:46 pm

This may make you feel better – no sick time and lets just say it’s a good thing that vacation or PTO is really low on my list of priorities!

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Anonymous June 28, 2012 at 7:35 pm

I recently switched departments, so while the company and benefits stayed the same (PTO, not separate vacation and sick, and it’s seniority-based and I’ve been there a while, so it’s decent), I went from having a boss who NEVER doled out praise, and valued being “nice” (or his version of it) to actually giving valuable feedback and taking care of problems in the department. That department is even more messed up since I left, and not because of my departure, just a coincidence.

Anyway, I now have a boss who tells me what is expected, only expects what is reasonable considering the circumstances (which is very patient of her since I’m still new), welcomes clarifying questions, is very patient in providing feedback, and provides positive feedback generously (as appropriate, of course). I’m also working with people who are adults, can have an adult conversation and stay on track, who do what they say they will when they say they will, and who meet deadlines. It’s absolutely incredible, I’ve got to say.

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Long Time Admin June 29, 2012 at 9:45 am

I had a good boss like that, and I would have taken a bullet for that guy.

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Jamie June 29, 2012 at 10:16 am

My first boss was like this, too. I would still take a bullet for him and I haven’t worked for him in years.

Being a great manager isn’t only good for the employees and company – but it’s like kevlar for the manager themselves :).

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Kelly O June 29, 2012 at 12:05 pm

+∞

I’ve had two bosses like this over the course of my career and consider myself a better person for having worked for them.

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KayDay June 27, 2012 at 3:46 pm

Jamie, seriously, everyone knows that good management is a piss-poor substitute for bean bag tosses, trust falls, and retreats to muddy parks in bad weather. If your team can’t come together to bitch about the team building, how will they ever form a bond?*sarcasm*

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Sharon June 27, 2012 at 3:57 pm

KayDay, i love your response!

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ChristineH June 27, 2012 at 4:06 pm

Jamie – Can I come work for you?? ;)

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Charles June 27, 2012 at 4:51 pm

Well, as a trainer I was going to make some suggestions on the BEST way to build a team – but, Jamie beat me to them.

I also second AAM’s “Eeuuww. I would have walked out, seriously. I have a very low tolerance for that kind of thing.”

Seriously, I have an even lower tolerance for crap like that because it reflects so poorly on my profession. One place asked me to put together something for team building once. I suggested that they get better “how to be a manager” training – they never asked me again.

In my experience, the outward bound, paintball, fall and let your co-worker catch you crap works well for executives – not as a team-building exercises, but, as a way for them to “play” and get paid for it.

P.S. I would most definately be the one shooting the jackass manager/co-worker in the back with the paintball. Oh, hell, on second thought I can think of one manager who I would shoot between the f*cking eyes and let him see my grin as I did it!

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jmkenrick June 27, 2012 at 7:40 pm

I agree that lots of that touchy-feely, “trust-exercise” stuff seems silly, but as someone who’s not great at stricking up converasations with random co-workers in the halls or at parties, it can be helpful to have a structured event that allows you to get to know people in your organization.

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jmkenrick June 27, 2012 at 7:41 pm

*striking up, not stricking up, although that sounds interesting.

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Malissa June 27, 2012 at 8:10 pm

Isn’t that what getting drunk at the Holiday party is for? :)

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Kimberlee June 27, 2012 at 8:15 pm

I want to second this idea. I remember several fun “get to know each other” activities from school that I would do again in a managment environment, if there were a bunch of new people coming on or a new department being formed or something. My favorite was where you go around the room and each person says something about themselves that is unusual or cool. Now, I can see where that might go wrong in a workplace, but I always loved it. My favorite was in high school, where one guy (very normal, not fashionista-type at all)’s comment was that he owned like 112 1/2 pairs of shoes. That is, to date, one of the only things I remember about that guy.

Another thing I really like, and in fact I think would be great in places that have like weekly required staff meetings is opening with having each person, going around the group, say one thing they’re happy about or thankful for (this was actually done in a women’s group that I was part of, not work, but still). It was really nice, because you got to know people better, and it was bright and happy (because even if you had a crappy day you had to come up with something). But perhaps more important was that you couldn’t pass. It made the entire environment of the group such that everyone spoke, and as a consequence no one was afraid to speak. It really encouraged a more active participation, which is why I think it could *possibly* be a good addition to a staff meeting.

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Samantha June 27, 2012 at 8:34 pm

Yeah no – neither of those are “fun” things to be involved in at work.

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Ask a Manager June 27, 2012 at 8:36 pm

I know I’m a curmudgeon, but I’d be feeling annoyed if I was asked to do this kind of thing at work (although not in a a social setting or in a class). At work, treat me like a grown-up professional and assume that I can build the relationships I need to build to get my job done on my own. And I totally get that others wouldn’t — but that’s kind of the point, that different people feel differently about this stuff, so mandating it for a workplace group rarely works and nearly always leaves someone annoyed or alienated.

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Anonymous June 27, 2012 at 9:07 pm

It really depends on the type of workplace. In some settings, this would be totally normal (think schools or mental health facilities). I think it’s really about the culture and type of business. If you’re doing work that is emotionally taxing, your relationships with coworkers aren’t the same as they are in a typical office.

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Charles June 27, 2012 at 11:18 pm

AAM, I totally agree – “treat adults like adults.” (Psst, that’s from adult & continuing education 101)

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KellyK June 28, 2012 at 8:29 am

I totally agree with treating everyone like adults at work.

I think you could do the “go around the room and say something interesting about yourself” without treating everyone like 5th graders only if it was in a context where you would normally have people go around the room and introduce themselves. A kick-off meeting for a new project, team, or department, not a situation where everyone already knows each other.

*And* if you didn’t bug people to come up with something interesting about themselves if they were drawing a blank.

Anything more than that just gets irritating.

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A. Nonymous June 28, 2012 at 9:36 am

I agree. I recently attended an advisory board meeting for a non-profit organization and we did a really great “team building activity.” The organization provided a large deck of cards with pictures of everything under the sun–musicians, babies, families, beaches, dogs, food, etc–and each person chose 1 card that represented themselves and 1 that represented their feelings toward the organization. Then we went around the room and everyone showed their cards and explained the meaning. I thought it was really effective. Since the group only meets in person twice each year, we don’t get to spend as much time together as we would like and therefore don’t get to know each other very well. I learned some great things about the other members that I otherwise may never have found out and it gave us some convenient starting points for dinner conversation :)

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Long Time Admin June 29, 2012 at 9:49 am

That would work here, if we’re using a tarot deck.

jmkenrick June 27, 2012 at 11:55 pm

I have to say, I’m not sure I would like that in meetings, but my team, for example, organizes an event twice a year (like a scavenger hunt that was done recently) which is helpful for getting to know people who you don’t have cause for interacting with much during the day. This is especially true for my company, which has a lot of remote employees. That said these aren’t required events (people have skipped them before) so I’m not sure if they technically qualify as “team-building” but since I prefer getting to know a fellow team member via an activity or assignment than small talk at a party, I appreciate the opportunity.

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AlanM July 4, 2012 at 7:46 am

That sounds pretty benign as things go… right up to the point that the staff meeting interupted a stressful project… Then I might venture that I was thankful I’d not yet strangled anyone yet that day.
You gotta be able to let it pass. btw, I’m an introvert and just love AaM’s take on this.

Take away? Don’t force me to ‘be happy’. Thats not whay I’m there for.

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Camellia June 28, 2012 at 4:16 pm

“One place asked me to put together something for team building once. I suggested that they get better “how to be a manager” training – they never asked me again.”

I know I’m coming in to the discussion a little late but I just had to say I love this!!

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Vicki July 8, 2012 at 9:14 pm

Isn’t ist sad how many of us say (wistfully as Kelly does) “How I would LOVE to have a boss like that”? or “I had a boss like that… once.”

There are too too too many bad managers out there.

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KayDay June 27, 2012 at 3:43 pm

I, fortunately, have not been subjected to much team building (any time I hear “team building” I like of the trust-fall scene in mean girls when they drop the girl). The worst one I had was where we tossed a bean bag around and said what we like about the person we were tossing it too…of course, we had just met each other, and didn’t really have much to say. The best team building exercise is when my boss buys me coffee (okay, that wasn’t really a team-building exercise, but I felt as if it strengthened our “team” of 2).

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Mary Sue June 27, 2012 at 4:24 pm

Dude. I’ve *been* the dropped one during a trust fall.

Now I refuse to do them. And guilt tripping and shaming doesn’t work on me. For anything, actually, but particularly for this.

Yeah, if you want me to trust you, you should respect my boundaries which include a fear of falling and not liking to be touched by other people.

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Anonymous June 27, 2012 at 5:14 pm

“Yeah, if you want me to trust you, you should respect my boundaries which include a fear of falling and not liking to be touched by other people.”

Extraordinary point.

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Jessica June 29, 2012 at 5:48 pm

Amen! I don’t even trust my husband to catch me with the “fall back, I’ll get you!” thing. I love him. I’d trust him with my life. I do not like falling backward (and get nervous even standing on a chair for fear of falling), so I’m certainly not trusting a coworker with this type of thing.

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saro June 30, 2012 at 1:23 am

Yup. I completely agree.

I don’t like to hug people, I don’t like to kiss people. I have a liberal outlook on life but practice a fairly conservative religion. Respect is the key word.

It seems that these team-building exercises ignore that there are different types of people in the world and expect everyone to go along with convention.

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Kelly O June 27, 2012 at 3:45 pm

I worked for a company once that allocated a certain amount to each department for “team building exercises” every quarter. We’d stretch ours out – ordering in lunch was team building. So was picking up cupcakes from this awesome local bakery, or Starbucks for everyone, or any number of “little” things that probably seemed small and silly at first, but really did make our group mesh better and contribute to a great working environment.

One quarter we went to Dave and Buster’s and divided up into teams to see who could come back with the most tickets. Turns out we had one girl who was awesome at that big wheel that could land you a few hundred tickets at the time. They won, but I still kicked everyone’s backside at trivia. That’s what eight years of Scholar’s Bowl will do for you.

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Esra June 27, 2012 at 5:59 pm

[O]rdering in lunch was team building.

This is perfect team building for me. Free pizza or whatever, during lunch (not after hours) where everyone can just eat and chat leisurely.

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Jesse June 27, 2012 at 3:52 pm

I am the team building leader at my work. I will say that no matter how much I prepare for a session, it depends on the group to make it successful or not. One snarky attitude can ruin a session that was going fine up until that moment.

I’ve found that the best results come from group games. One of my favorites is to build a large four by four grid on the floor. (Sixteen total squares). Participants are asked to find their way through the maze. (They guess square by square the direction of the maze). Only one person in the maze at a time. Depending on the group, I may only allow one (or none) to speak at a time. I’ve found that this really forces the group to look at each other, and watch their conversation tone.

My worst? I was asked to lead a team building workshop among my coworkers. A man in a different department would not shut up with questions. Even telling him that I was going to address those questions in a moment would not get him to pipe-down. I’ve never had that much negative push back from an individual before, and wasn’t quite sure how to handle it. Plus he was my coworker! If it had been in a different setting I think I would’ve pulled him aside and told him to shape up.

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moss June 27, 2012 at 4:17 pm

One snarky attitude can ruin a session

If your sessions are that fragile you might want to redesign them.

I am always wary of groups especially since I am an introvert/only child/female in a male-dominated industry/non-Christian in a Christian-dominated region.

I would love for team-building exercises to take into account that teams often imply groupthink and there are legitimate problems with that. I’m not going to get on board with some stupid exercise just because my boss wants me to. As E.E. Cummings wrote, “i will not kiss your f.ing flag.”

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khilde June 27, 2012 at 5:26 pm

If your sessions are that fragile you might want to redesign them.

No way. One snarky attitude can totally take down a class – teambuilding exercises notwithstanding. I am a trainer and the quality and success of a class is frighteningly tied to the attitude, energy, and willingness of the participants in the room. Here’s the deal: my core materials, points, activities, and presentation style generally remain the same. Yet I can have one group that is willing and participating and it goes well. I can do the same exact class with a different mix of people and get a couple of bad applese and the whole energy is brought down. Training adults is damn harder than it looks.

{and I don’t engage in those types of teambuilding activities – precisely because of the responses to this post. People just don’t like them}.

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podgicus June 27, 2012 at 6:06 pm

Completely agree. I do training sessions as part of my job and having just one person who is constantly making snarky comments takes time away from the content of the training, and disrupts the whole group. This is especially true if the snarky one is someone who is looked up to and popular – the attitude is infectious and makes the whole session almost pointless. “You only get out of it what you put in” I find is very true.

FWIW, I think team-building sessions always seem forced and unconstructive. As others have said, a box of donuts, or a takeout lunch once a week (as well as good management) build a team much more effectively that trust-falls, raft-building and bean bags.

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JT June 27, 2012 at 8:17 pm

The question i have for khilde is is it “snark” or is it valid criticism? If we care about our workplace, we have a responsibility to be critical.

“different mix of people and get a couple of bad applese”

If it’s a different mix of people, perhaps your material or the overall task is wrong for them.

The activity Jesse described with the maze sounds useless to me. Group games in general are lame, for me at least. If I was in the group, I’d critique it quite firmly. Though after expressing myself, I wouldn’t keep repeating it. If my boss allowed, I’d leave. Otherwise I’d just shut up and not participate.

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khilde June 28, 2012 at 9:26 am

JT – yes, you’re definitely right that there’s a distinction between valid criticism and snark. I welcome valid criticism and actually seek it after classes through evals – people bring it and, as hard as it is to hear, it does help me better adapt my materials to what the group needs for the future. Snark is the eye rolling in class. The empty, pessimistic comments. The lack of even appearing to make an effort to engage with the material and or the people around them (FWIW, I truly don’t get that a lot in my classes. Our employees are very awesome).

Through discussions and networking with other folks in the training industry, I have come to learn that the way my government organization does training is a little different than how training is conducted in the private sector. We have our core classes that we offer and state employees from all agencies in state government sign up for classes. So the class content is generally the same, but I get a completely different mix and selection of participants each time. Which is hard because I have to be able to read a room within the first moments of class. Determine if I have a chatty group or not and adapt accordingly. It changes each time. You’re right, though — for some of those groups, they may not feel the content is useful. While others will really absorb something from it.

I don’t do a lot of games in my classes. I don’t think I can pull them off very well–and a trainer has to be able to conduct it effectively. I get frustrated with the sentiment of some individuals that make blanket statements about certain activities or types of games being completely worthless. By going in with that mental block a person is reinforcing that fact in their head, never giving it a chance to see if there’s something to be gained from it. With all that said, there are a lot of training events in which the trainer doesn’t seem to think it through.

Which brings me to my final point that I have thought from nearly day one in this job: Every person has to make mistakes on the job in order to get better. The difficult thing for a trainer is that she has to make mistakes with and in front of other adults. And adults can be unforgiving. We are not mind readers. Many of us are constantly evolving and trying new techniques (I’m a firm believer that certain trainers can pull of certain techniques/activities while others cannot).

Sheesh, that sounds defensive. I really didn’t mean to be. I just don’t get to talk about my experiences as much here in the threads and jumped on the chance! thanks for challening my thinking today.

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-X- June 28, 2012 at 3:34 pm

Training and team-building exercises are not the same. There is some overlap between the two but they’re not the same. The latter suck much more often, or at least are misguided much more often.

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Jamie June 28, 2012 at 3:50 pm

This. I will admit I was extremely skeptical of external trainers up until last year. I learn best by just reading the material and getting clarification so I thought it would save money if everyone just did it that way.

I’m not overruled often, but since it wasn’t coming out of the IT budget it got the green light and I have never been so happy to have been proven so wrong.

Worth every penny – I’d still be banging my head against the wall trying to impart this information to so many people…seeing a good trainer in work is like watching an amazing athlete. You know you could never in a million years do what they do, so you just sit back and enjoy the spectacle.

The information he brought wasn’t the valuable part – truth be told he wasn’t training on anything I didn’t know – it was his gift for communicating and the structured plan and presentation …that was the value.

Apparently someone who knows how to teach can communicate better than me emailing procedures to people and asking them to let me know if they have any questions.

For the record, I’m not a total loser at training – I’m okay when it’s individual and I have kick ass documentation skills…it’s when it’s tens of people I don’t know, all different levels of English, all different levels of education and interest…that’s where my wheels fall off.

ethel March 9, 2014 at 8:59 pm

I teach in a title 1 school, with behavior problem, low literacy kids, after school. Some are great, some are horrible little assholes. Our program is solid, with proven results of 90% increase in literacy over the school year. I don’t experiene this “one bad apple” effect, and I typically have 4 or 5 bad apples in a group of 20.

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Charles June 27, 2012 at 11:51 pm

” . . . the quality and success of a class is frighteningly tied to the attitude, energy, and willingness of the participants in the room.”

Somewhat true, and it is also true that teaching adults is a lot harder than it looks. If you have one class in which the training doesn’t work; then you, the trainer, need to figure out why (and it isn’t just because of snark).

Whenever I get someone “snarky” in one of my classes I do NOT take it personally. Rather, it is my job to figure out WHY they are so snarky. Oftentimes the real reason has nothing to do with what they are complaining about.

If you have a whole class that is complaining about having to do one of these stupid (and they can be truly stupid at times!) team-building exercises why not agree with them and ask them to humor you? Then get them to do the part which truly is about team-building and show them that they have learned something (I am, of course, assuming that there might be some merit in the silly exercise.)

I can honestly say that in my 3 decades of teaching and training only once have I asked someone to leave (and never come back!). I did end up training her one-on-one and she brought me a box of chocolates as a “sorry to have been an ass in your class.”

P.S. sorry folks for being “harsh” on fellow trainers; but, I do believe that khilde is correct in stating that it is harder to teach adults than K-12 and it is precisely because the training (or whatever exercise) should fit the adult – not the adult should fit the training.

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Andrew June 28, 2012 at 10:36 am

“Bad apples?”

Sounds like you are the one in need of an attitude adjustment. These are people, not pieces on a game board or rotten fruit.

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Sabrina June 27, 2012 at 4:35 pm

No offense to you, but that sounds like an absolute nightmare. I hate team building exercises and one like that, I think I’d call in sick that day.

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Esra June 27, 2012 at 6:02 pm

I was going to say the same. I hate games like that, loathe them. I don’t understand what that would accomplish that just having some time to chat or working together on a project wouldn’t.

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Michele June 27, 2012 at 6:45 pm

“One snarky attitude can ruin a session.”

TOO TRUE! I hate how the issue of how effective/enjoyable team-building is tends to boil down to some kind of introvert/extrovert debate. Ultimately, this isn’t an issue of personality, but attitude. I have no problem with people deciding after the fact that a particular exercise was not effective or enjoyable (I’ve done that myself, many times), because the truth is, sometimes things just don’t quite work out the way the facilitator intended (and sometimes that’s for the better). But when people show up having already decided that team-building is dumb, or useless, or a waste of time/money, or anything other than good-intentioned and potentially effective, I want to pull my hair out. All too often, it’s the people who come in with their back up that MAKE it dumb, useless or a waste of time/money, because they undermine the entire exercise with their toxic attitude and unwillingness to participate.

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fposte June 27, 2012 at 8:09 pm

I’m torn here, because I know what you’re saying, and in general in an organization I respect I’m willing to put up with stuff even though doesn’t really suit me. And I think it really can be a problem when one person’s individual taste sours the experience for everything.

But. Two buts. First, these exercises are chosen based on faith and convention, not results, so we’re doing stuff despite the fact that it might actually make us relate worse. And secondly, on most days, however many hours this stuff is taking is how many additional hours I have to work that day to meet the deadline that ensures I bring in the revenue from which I’m paid. I don’t think many of these exercises begin with management announcing “We’re dropping our production expectations 20% for the week because of this team day while still paying you the same.”

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Ask a Manager June 27, 2012 at 8:17 pm

Michele, I do think there’s something to that, but … well, I think it’s worth considering that it’s not a bad attitude just for the sake of having a bad attitude — it might be because of legitimate and valid objections, that it’s not an employer’s place to make people participate in something like that. Some of these activities actually feel a bit like a violation — of dignity, of privacy, and of one’s general person. Expect people to do good work and address it if they don’t, but don’t make them play games or engage in group social experiments.

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-X- June 28, 2012 at 6:56 am

Regular poster here posting under another name:
I’m fortunate to have been in an organization that has had some world-class team-building consultants help us at retreats: people who have done things such as contributed to turnarounds in units of global corporations, helped create good working relationships in coalition governments, and have written extremely successful and influential books. And you know what: I still found their efforts with us in several retreats either superficial or invasive.

Part of the problem is that they’re called in due to a diagnosis by management that “we need to work better in teams.” Well duh. But is the problem a lack of understanding of how teams work in general? These consultants are good at dealing with that if that’s the case. Or is it a lack of trust? Well, I’m not sure these consultants are so good at that, though sometimes they are. Or is it a lack of formal structures/ procedures that support teamwork and team success? The latter is much more operational and requires a different kind of expertise (more like traditional management consulting) than “team-building.” And frankly, at least in my organization, the latter is more important.

So we get highly-skilled team-building consultants helping us answer the wrong questions in ways that are often too personal (at worst) or just silly (at best).

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khilde June 28, 2012 at 9:38 am

A lot of the comments here are circling around the same issue, but X’s comment goes a bit deeper. I think that’s exactly the problem with a lot of the traditional teambuilding games: they don’t address the heart of the issue. Most employees who are dragged to these events could tell you precisely what’s wrong with the team. And I think it often is linked to the management (or non-management, as it were) style of the supervisor of the group (not bagging on managers in general here. It’s just that those managers that have awesome staffs, sound supervisory skills, etc. rarely (in my experience) have the need to break out one of these team games in the hopes that it will fix something).

I get requests often from managers in our organization for a certain class topic. So we talk a little bit and I try to get a feel for why they are requesting it, etc. The more we talk, the more I realize that what they are describing to me as the problem on the team isn’t really going to be addressed in a team building activity. I think those team building games are better suited for groups that already have good rapport and decent communication. They’re more effective to strengthen what’s already strong. But to fix what’s broken? No way. But if you have a staff that is already fraying at the seams, the leadership is unwilling or unable to address the core issue AND they decide that a 2 hour training is going to “fix” it? I think the comments from many of you on why you hate those session so bad is the result. And I don’t blame you.

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fposte June 28, 2012 at 12:05 pm

Right. The experiences that *have* been useful for me, like a facilitated workshop a few years ago, have been those that directly addressed the key work issues. That’s where somebody who’s both an outsider and possessed of a skillset we don’t likely have can be a tremendous asset. But in the workplaces I’ve known, if the problem really is as broad as no team cohesion, that’s because the manager’s deeply flawed, and no amount of rappeling is going to fix that once we go back to the office.

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Michele June 28, 2012 at 2:06 pm

THIS – this I agree with wholeheartedly. While I very much believe that team-building can be a very worthwhile (and fun!) endeavor, I also know that there is a time and place for it. That time is on the front-end – when you’re trying to cultivate a sense of confidence, cohesion and camaraderie in a group of people who will be working together. It is not meant to be used as a corrective measure once someone realizes that the group is dysfunctional. Teams in that position need something entirely different, and no amount of trust falls or games of telephone is going to help them.

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Jamie June 28, 2012 at 10:48 am

And this is why Alison is the best…

“a violation — of dignity”

I couldn’t put my finger on why just the concept of these things offends me on a visceral level and that is exactly it. It’s a violation of dignity.

When this topic generates so many similar anecdotal data from people’s experience in school, or summer camp…maybe tptb should rethink activities that are so similar to those designed for children.

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JT June 27, 2012 at 8:48 pm

I show up deciding it’s a waste of time and money because it has been, many times, in the past for me. It’s silly for me to walk happily into an event over and over and again and make the same mistake.

The onus is on the organizers of these events to understand why they fail and change that. If they just say “Have a good attitude! Keep an open mind!” that’s not good enough. It’s a fail.

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HRanon June 27, 2012 at 10:16 pm

But it IS dumb, useless, and a waste of time/money. This kind of **** is not how teams are built. Pretending otherwise or going along doesn’t make it so.

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A. Nonymous June 28, 2012 at 9:48 am

I absolutely agree that it’s not an issue of introvert/extrovert. I am insanely introverted and I typically go in dreading team building activities, but there have been multiple activities that I have ended up enjoying in spite of myself. I actually think team building activities are useful for introverts because they allow us to become more comfortable with the other people in our group. Granted, it’s not as ideal as going out for a casual lunch or something, but it’s certainly quicker! IMHO, anyway.

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Charles June 27, 2012 at 11:33 pm

“One snarky attitude can ruin a session that was going fine up until that moment.”

As a fellow trainer I totally get how one bag apple can “spoil” things; h0wever, it is ultimately up to you, the trainer, to make sure that doesn’t happen. You need to be better prepared for resistance or whatever you want to call it.

But, to let it “ruin” a session is a poor excuse, not a valid reason, to not reach the goals of the class. I would suggest that you look for objections when you prepare the agenda and then you will be better able to handle the “bad apples.” Not to mention looking for objections might help you prepare a better course agenda.

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Jamie June 28, 2012 at 11:08 am

I think it’s really important to differentiate between team building and training.

We recently worked with a fabulous external trainer – who we hired to train various groups in specific things. If anyone had brought the snark to that I personally would have dealt with it privately and kept it out of the training session.

I think it’s up to the lead internal person to make sure that not only is the trainer qualified, but to maintain a positive atmosphere about it internally so the classes will be successful.

Training – as I see it – is detailed instruction on specific topics related to the work. I’d hate to see legitimate training (which can be so beneficial) get conflated with this team building stuff (which is something else, entirely.)

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Charles June 28, 2012 at 3:22 pm

“I’d hate to see legitimate training (which can be so beneficial) get conflated with this team building stuff (which is something else, entirely.)”

THANK YOU!

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Elise June 28, 2012 at 1:11 am

How do you define “best results”? Is there level of teamwork in the office charted before and after one of these sessions or some other method?

I’m not trying to be snarky…just actually wondering how those who give these things are judging their success.

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Anonymous June 28, 2012 at 11:00 am

Umm… yeah, I’m going to be the bad apple with those exercises. I don’t appreciate it when I’ve been pulled away to do a unnecessary group exercise and I know once its over I’m going to have the boss loudly asking why we are so far behind.

Especially when the trainer may refuse people permission to speak.

Since most of what I have to do I do alone I really don’t appreciate touchy-feely wastes of time that mean I’m pulling extra unpaid overtime to catch up.

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Vicki July 8, 2012 at 9:16 pm

> If it had been in a different setting I think I would’ve pulled him aside and told him to shape up.

Perhaps that’s exactly what you should have done. Setting or no “setting” he was ruining this for everyone and causing stress for you. He needed to leave.

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Megan June 27, 2012 at 3:54 pm

I’m not a huge fan of team building, but in my role as an HR Director at a small company, I was required to facilitate a certain number every year. I ended up dividing up the company into groups, with each group comprised of one person from each department. One group met at a time and I would start by leading the conversation in certain directions by asking each person the same questions and we’d discuss the responses. Sometimes the groups were just light conversation and learning some interesting things about our co-workers, and other times they led to very enlightening topics about how certain departments could be working together on issues they weren’t aware of were a common problem.

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MovingRightAlong June 28, 2012 at 12:37 pm

Huh, bringing people together who don’t normally interact and facilitating communication to solve real company problems? Are you sure that counts as team-building? But seriously, that sounds like the best use of mandatory team-building time I’ve heard so far.

My own feeling is that the part companies get wrong is the “mandatory” bit (with the exception of the above example, that sort of discussion is absolutely essential and useful). There’s nothing inherently wrong with many of the activities mentioned in the original article or in the stories that posters have shared here. Some people like paintball or rafting or solving puzzles together. But lots of people don’t, too, and assuming that you can get everyone to bond through the same activity (and possibly force them to make a financial commitment in order to not be miserable – see all day hiking trip) is a great way to encourage spite.

So instead, why not set up 4-5 different activities throughout the year with the stipulation that 20+ people (or 50+ or 200+ whatever’s necessary to make it financially worth it) need to sign up to make it happen? That way, people would have the opportunity to get to know other in a setting where they’re actually comfortable. That would be more difficult for a small company, I know, but, in additional to things like lunches and coffee that folks have already mentioned, you could still put together a book club, a camping trip, or a gaming night for little-to-no cost. When people can choose to opt in (instead of having to specifically opt out), it encourages a sense of ownership over the activity and will do far more to foster good will.

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Anonymous June 28, 2012 at 2:00 pm

“Huh, bringing people together who don’t normally interact and facilitating communication to solve real company problems? Are you sure that counts as team-building? But seriously, that sounds like the best use of mandatory team-building time I’ve heard so far.”

Agreed. If the team building was billed as that I wouldn’t have a problem with it. I’ve actually caused these meetings to happen and got different departments to realise its not only them that has this problem. This has lead to a agreed re-distribution of where paperwork goes to ensure all departments are up to speed and a chat with relevant clients to get processes to be better.

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ChristineH June 27, 2012 at 3:58 pm

In a previous job, there was a period where we did a team-building exercise during each weekly meeting, and each team member would eventually have a turn at coming up with the exercise. When it was my turn, I was freaking out because I had NEVER designed and led group exercises before; I had to look on the Internet to find some examples. IIRC, I think I ultimately had everyone do a brief personality test, then have everyone say what their result was. Very surprising given that the manager who came up with this idea struck me as quite introverted (in reference to Jess’s comment above).

Even though I am introverted and even a little shy, I actually enjoy team-building and similar exercises. However, they have to be done right in order to be effective. That’s why I don’t think it was a good idea for our manager to make us come up with ideas ourselves; I honestly think they should be facilitated by someone experienced with these type of activities.

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JT June 28, 2012 at 7:03 am

A key element of building teams is working together successfully to reach and objective. As way do do that outside the normal course of work, and in ways that cut across departmental boundaries, I suggested we do “skill share” sessions regularly, and at retreats. These are sessions in which staff with a skill to share offers to teach a class or workshop on those skills, and others who are interested can attend. It’s demand-driven – people aren’t forced to attend. And the topics can be work or non-work related, or in between. We’ve had them on business writing, storytelling, and others so far, and are likely to have some on cooking and budgets/planning in the near term. These sessions create a joint-experience in a low-pressure way, so help people get to know each other. And they are not contrived like games or emotionally invasive. I think they’re going well.

We used an online survey system to get staff to suggest skills they could teach and also skills they were interested in.

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Victoria June 27, 2012 at 4:06 pm

Great question! My orgs have generally been too small to have any sort of formal team-building initiatives. But I’d love to have another thread about diversity trainings!

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Kelly O June 28, 2012 at 10:13 am

Is it wrong to admit that I rolled my eyes at the thought of Diversity Training?

Seems like organizations that could really use it don’t think they need it, and the ones that do make it either the most boring half-day you’ll sit through, or “don’t say anything to anyone about anything or our lawyers will sh*t a brick.”

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Charles June 28, 2012 at 3:28 pm

“Is it wrong to admit that I rolled my eyes at the thought of Diversity Training?”

Nope, not wrong at all.

I was once asked to put together a “diversity or some sort of sensitivity” training. I don’t think I rolled my eyes; But, I told the boss that if he hired the right kind of folks there wouldn’t be a need for such “training.”

It is true – everything that you really need to know you learned in kindergarten.

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Sarah June 27, 2012 at 4:10 pm

This post is so perfectly timed. I just found on that on Friday, I’m being dragged to – er, get to participate in – a GeoQuest High Tech Treasure Hunt Team Building.

http://www.teambuildinginc.com/services_teambuilding_treasure_hunts_gps.htm

I get the point, really I do, and it’ll probably be fun – but I can’t help rolling my eyes, just a little, just to myself.

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Michael June 27, 2012 at 4:15 pm

I’ve seen two team building exercises: Golf and Frisbee Golf. Frisbee Golf was more enjoyable for a larger audience because you didn’t need to be anywhere close to proficient for everyone to have a good time. I enjoyed both, but the only reason I was able to enjoy the team golf is because there was someone else on my team worse than me for the VP to get pissed at.

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V June 27, 2012 at 11:28 pm

Frolf!!!! I know I’m not the only one who thought of that episode of Seinfeld.

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Lisa June 28, 2012 at 9:10 am

I love disc golf! It levels the playing field, but I enjoy team days that include multiple options. I would rather go to a place that has mini golf, darts, tennis, bowling, etc. Team building works when you break the teams up into their usual clicks first (team members minus the bosses), then bring everyone together for a larger activity. I think it works better when management is forced to be on one team and pitted against their staff. The staff feels more comfortable being honest among real peers, and wont just be passive during the activity. By passive, i mean there is always some guy / girl that takes over running the exercise given, and others just let them because its easier than going against the grain. That know it all is usually in management of is a favorite which is prob the reason you are team building in the first place.

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Janet June 27, 2012 at 4:21 pm

During a previous job I worked in a team that was having trouble getting along. Mainly because we had no direction and no one knew who was supposed to be in charge of any particular project so anytime we received feedback it turned into “I don’t have to listen to YOU, you’re not my boss!” fights. Just a bad time.

So they brought in someone to help us work together as a team. First activity? We had to go around the room and tell each other what we didn’t like about each other. I’m not joking. We might have also had to add what we did like about each other but I honestly only remember the criticisms and the people bursting into tears. We went from simply not being able to work together to actively disliking each other in about 30 minutes. Then we ate a boxed lunch and ended the day by filling out personality tests.

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Catherine June 27, 2012 at 4:43 pm

LOL I would love to be able to go around the room and tell everyone why I don’t like them. I’m fine with them doing that to me. I don’t care about them anyway. (They don’t call me “cranky beyond my years” for nothing.)

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Jamie June 27, 2012 at 4:51 pm

A grown up slam book. Wow.

Even if you generally like your co-workers that is so not a good idea.

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Lisa June 28, 2012 at 9:15 am

this is the best way to get fired, or never get promoted or a raise ever again. You are killing your prospects by being honest, when no one wants honesty. I just filled out a survey for work, and even though it is done by an outside company they had all these identifiers in the questions. They said don’t write in the open comments section if you dont want to be identified, but they made me sign in with a code which labeled me as from marketing and geared my questions to the marketing dept (6 people in marketing), then had me state how long i have worked here (less than 6 months), guess which marketing person is the only one here less than 6 months??? I was honest with the mult choice questions, but clearly should have lied since it will be easy to identify me when the results are in.

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MovingRightAlong June 28, 2012 at 12:50 pm

Ugh, I had to fill out a series of the survey’s for my last job. It was a similar set up in that the outside company promised everyone anonymity, but required you to identify which department you worked it. That part would be tied to your responses and be visible to management. Guess how many in people were in my department. Oh, just me. Guess how many in nearly every other department. Two.

Yeah. Real anonymous.

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MovingRightAlong June 28, 2012 at 12:53 pm

*a series of surveys…

Not sure where that sentence was going originally.

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Jessica June 29, 2012 at 6:00 pm

Yeah, this happened to me at work recently. The head sent out requests for feedback for certain administrators. Looking at the email addresses of who received them, guess who the only support person to receive the emails for two of the employees was? Yep, me. And they ask if you are faculty, support, administrator, technical, etc., so they would’ve known I was the only support staff member giving feedback (and they also asked the “how long have you worked here” question, which uniquely identifies me as well). The third one I received had all emails in a blind copy, so I wasn’t able to tell who was on it…so I refused to take any of them. I would have had only highly critical responses for two of the three, which wouldn’t do me any favors there.

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Anonymous June 28, 2012 at 2:01 pm

heh. Not going to be useful… We all have habits and things that we will never agree on.

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Mike D. June 27, 2012 at 4:23 pm

At the curling club I belong to we have companies that bring in a bunch of people and for two hours we teach them how to curl and they have a little mini game. They’re encouraged to bring some food and sit down and hang out after the game. It usually goes really well. I think a lot of people are curious about the sport.

I remember one group specifically and they said they get a certain amount of money per quarter to do a team building exercise. The team gets together and decides what to do though, it’s not something mandaged by management. I think that’s why they seemed to really enjoy eachother. The previous quarter they had been to an NBA game.

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JT June 27, 2012 at 8:28 pm

If I was called in to have “fun” like that while under pressure at work for outcomes and at home for life I’d be livid. I have plenty of opportunities for fun and not enough time to do them. And time pressure at work.

If other people want to have fun like that, it’s great that the company offers it. But when things like that are mandatory I find them demoralizing.

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Anonymous June 27, 2012 at 4:37 pm

No joke, my team did “horse whispering” where you work with horses to learn about effective communication. One of the horses got over-excited, galloped towards the center of the barn where we were being briefed, and nearly trampled one of my co-workers. It was a bonding experience to a certain extent, but only because we all thought we were going to die.

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Lisa June 28, 2012 at 4:23 pm

Sounds obnoxious! But, as a horsewoman, I will say there’s a lot you can learn from horses–however, I think they’re better suited to therapy for people with severe emotional problems than as a team-building exercise for companies. I participated in a program where teen girls in residential treatment for psychiatric issues were taught to care for rescued horses that were paired with them based on personality and history. For instance, a girl who had been neglected was paired with a horse whose previous owner had starved it nearly to death. The transformation was amazing!

Now, I don’t think I’d ever want my colleagues at the barn with me, though. I’d be too embarrassed by the dirt and smell!

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Vanessa June 27, 2012 at 4:38 pm

When I worked at major apparel retailer we had a staff meeting each time a new season of clothing came in. We would get into groups with a “fashion assignment” and would either dress up an empty mannequin or a group member in a race to complete the assignment. It was sort of a combination scavenger hunt/get to know your new products activity and it was surprisingly fun.

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Stells June 27, 2012 at 5:04 pm

When I worked retail we’d do the quarterly “watch the fashion show and discuss our fashion opinions”. It was great, too, but you couldn’t really do that in most companies.

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Kelly O June 29, 2012 at 12:24 pm

I worked in retail during college at a makeup counter and used to love our monthly and quarterly training on the new things coming out, meeting the makeup artists, and learning from some of the folks that had been doing it for years and years.

Looking back on it, even though it was training on the new product, it was encouraging us to work as a team, even across stores and regions. We had great regional and district managers who seemed to really care about making sure we all felt equally important to the success of not just our individual counter and store, but the whole company and brand overall.

(It was also interesting to note, even then, that not all brands were the same, and we had severe push from another brand who didn’t have that “if our store is not successful then we’re not as successful as we think” attitude. My only written reprimand in two years there was for assisting a customer at another counter, who had a very specific request, and the girl working there was at lunch. Even though I didn’t get “credit” for the sale, apparently their counter’s policy didn’t want me behind it for any reason, even to get a moisturizer. I still don’t buy that brand on principle anymore.)

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Catherine June 27, 2012 at 4:42 pm

I hate any kind of “trust” exercises that require me to be blind-folded or jump/fall off furniture. We did one such exercise at my boss’ house, where each person was blind-folded, then directed around the house by the partner using only verbal instructions. Awful. The thing that made it really bad was that it was part of a team-building “retreat” at the boss’ house for an entire day, and we all hated our boss and thought it was colossal waste of time. She thought we should have been jumping for joy at such a wonderful treat.

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Sophie June 27, 2012 at 4:50 pm

When I was a freshman in college, my parents sent me to freshman orientation camp which involved many team building exercises (an absolute nightmare, being an introverted punky goth girl at a close-knit private school full of yuppies – I’ll never forgive them for that). One of the exercises they had our groups do was take a big gulp of soda, and SPIT the soda into a partner’s mouth!!! It was incredibly disgusting. I have no idea who thought that was a good idea, and who approved it. Some of the guys got into it, but most everyone declined.

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Blinx June 27, 2012 at 6:05 pm

I’m horrified that this exercise was sanctioned by anyone in authority!!! No way would I participate. Ugh!!

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ChristineH June 27, 2012 at 6:12 pm

Ewww!!! I’m cringing at the mere IDEA!

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A Bug! June 27, 2012 at 6:39 pm

That made me throw up in my mouth a little bit! Yuck!

This is so gross that I can’t help but be a bit concerned that the adult who arranged the activity maybe shouldn’t be in a position of authority over youths.

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Anonymous June 27, 2012 at 9:13 pm

I wouldn’t do that with my husband, much less strangers….

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Charles June 28, 2012 at 12:04 am

Ha! Freshman hazing disguised as team building. Doug Neidermeyer would be so proud.

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MovingRightAlong June 28, 2012 at 1:06 pm

I think you hit the nail on the head here. An organized activity that centers on humiliating a lower status group within a hierarchy? Definitely counts as hazing. Though this one comes with the special bonus of spreading germs. Bleh.

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A. Nonymous June 28, 2012 at 9:56 am

Sophie, I swear you went to my school. My student orientation was one of the worst experiences of my life and we actually had that same exercise.

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Laurie June 27, 2012 at 4:58 pm

Past team building experiences:

Mildly successful one – as part of a graduate program cohort group, we were let loose in one of those wooded obstacle course type of places, and had to do physical activities like using a rope to swing over from one island to another, balancing on a fallen tree trunk to cross over to the other side while maneuvering around another teammate who was doing the same from the opposite side. I didn’t have any fun and hated not being able to finish some of the tasks, but I’ll begrudgingly admit that it did bring us together.

Not fun at all – lunch speaker at a conference decided she would do a unique spin on the “meet random strangers in this room” thing. You had to bump elbows with as many people as you could in one minute (because shaking hands was unsanitary). Huh? You have to get quite a bit closer to another human being to bump elbows with them, than you would to just shake hands.

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Emily June 27, 2012 at 5:15 pm

When I was younger, I was a camp counselor, which inevitably involves a lot of team building among staff members as well as with kids. I find this kind of thing so excruciating in regular life (as did many of my campers, and as did I when I was a camper), and I don’t believe a lot of it really has a place in a traditional professional setting (camps and schools, and to some extent any field where safety is a principle matter, are just different), but even I have to admit that the right exercise is actually valuable.

My favorite team building (is “ice breaker” a less abhorrent term?) from my summer camp days is a game we called Geronimo. You make a circle of chairs one fewer than the number of people in the group, so one person, usually the leader to start off with, is standing in the middle. That person calls out an attribute that applies to her, anything from “everybody who likes coffee” to “everybody who has been to Alaska” and everyone who shares that attribute has to find a new seat (not the next one over), leaving a new person in the middle. It’s physical, but not intensive, you can learn a little bit about other members of the group without getting too intimate/intrusive, and if for some reason someone doesn’t want to reveal that they’ve been to Alaska, they can always fib and keep their seat. (The game is called ‘Geronimo’ because if the person in the middle really can’t think of anything, she can call “Geronimo!” and that means that everyone has to find a new seat.)

We don’t do much official team building in my current corporate environment, but from time to time, someone will email everyone in the group a link to some kind of challenge (we do these quizzes occasionally: http://learning.blogs.nytimes.com/category/news-quiz/) and we’ll compare answers/scores, either in response via email or in an impromptu standing-in-the-hallway meeting. No cheating—honor rule! It’s fun to challenge ourselves and each other and interesting conversations have come out of “how on earth did you know that?”

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Spreadsheet Monkey June 27, 2012 at 9:29 pm

I just took that quiz and scored 5/5, even though I completely guessed on 2 of them, and had to take an educated stab at a 3rd. Damn, I’m good!

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JT June 28, 2012 at 7:07 am

I think encouraging “chit chat” and office discussion of topics related to work (either directly or indirectly) or those quizzes is a good way to develop a sense of togetherness. We used to do that by email but it cluttered up inboxes, so now we’re starting to do it via an internal social network.

But don’t look down on people that don’t participate, or force participate.

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Emily June 29, 2012 at 9:43 am

I also like the quiz (that seems a bit pejorative, but for lack of a better term) because it offers a chance for a mental breather. It’s not always a manager who sends the link (thereby issuing the “challenge”), but anyone who senses the team could use a shift or a break from whatever drudgery and/or frustrations are going on in “inside the box.”

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Marie June 27, 2012 at 5:24 pm

Worst team-building: being forced in the middle of a freezing winter night to perform some task with sticks that relied on your fingers NOT being frozen stiff. That one was for university choir camp.

Best team-building: my current company has an annual retreat where they send everyone away for a weekend, with their families, for a paid holiday weekend. In the leadup to the last one, our marketing department had us arrange three “speed dates” with colleagues from a different department or location. At a time of our choosing during the retreat, we had to have a 10 minute coffee with each of our “dates”.

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Anonymous June 27, 2012 at 5:25 pm

I’m a VERY shy and VERY extroverted person. Truth be told, I’ve always loved team-building exercises, because they allowed me to interact with people without having to approach the situation (or create one) on my own.

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JT June 28, 2012 at 7:08 am

This is a nice perspective to hear.

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Stells June 27, 2012 at 5:30 pm

The best one was probably when our entire office closed for an afternoon and rented a two story party boat on a nearby lake. Office provided food, and the rest was BYOB. (they had the extra budget because we won some regional award that year). It was great because we all drove out there (and had to drive home) so drinking was kept to a minimum – and there was enough space for us to play games, swim/dive, or just camp out on the bottom level out of the sun and near the food (that’s where I was!).

Now that I’m working in corporate HR, we do birthday potluck lunches in the conference room. It’s great because everyone just brings as much or little as they want (I often will just cover drinks and go get requests from the soda machines in the break room), and we all stop for 30 mins or an hour to chit chat before getting back to work.

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class factotum June 27, 2012 at 6:50 pm

Stells, I don’t know you from PruCare Austin, do I? Because we did that one summer. Once a quarter, we did something really fun with everyone from the office, only we didn’t call it team building. We just called it a party. It was during work hours. We hired a temp so the receptionist could come. We always had a lot of fun. The party boat on Lake Travis was one of the best parties we had.

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Anonymous June 27, 2012 at 5:44 pm

I am an ex introvert who is now extremely extraverted and I have always though team building activities at least had the potential to do great things. I am still young (recently out of school) and work mostly with people my own age. My feeling has been as long as the people being asked to participate are being at least mildly receptive then the challenge of working out a problem together and being required to find ways to cooperate helps the group come together. That being said if there are few people who refuse to buy in, or try to be completely domineering than it breaks the whole thing down.
I imagine that these type of people are the root cause of workplace problems that might insipre someone to try group building exercises in the first place and that better management could have dealt with those people anyway.

But as far as getting a bunch of receptive strangers to bond and learn to work together quickly than team building.group excercises are amazing. I did a three day diversity retreat filled with these types of things and we had thirty very different people working together, sharing deeply personal things and feeling like good friends in no time.

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J June 27, 2012 at 5:58 pm

“That being said if there are few people who refuse to buy in, or try to be completely domineering than it breaks the whole thing down.”

Totally agreed! I mean, based on what other people have said (bringing in snakes…) not everyone is going to be receptive to everything, but… I feel like some people just give up or refuse too quickly on certain activities.

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ARM2008 June 27, 2012 at 7:46 pm

“That being said if there are few people who refuse to buy in, or try to be completely domineering than it breaks the whole thing down.
I imagine that these type of people are the root cause of workplace problems that might insipre someone to try group building exercises in the first place and that better management could have dealt with those people anyway.”

I imagine the people who don’t buy in to be the ones who tell the emperor he’s wearing no clothes…

LOL – there’s many ways to look at it.

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Ask a Manager June 27, 2012 at 8:43 pm

Yeah. I mean, I would refuse to buy in and I’m pretty confident that I’m not the root cause of workplace problems. I just have an objection to an employer asking me to share “deeply personal things” — wow, that’s inappropriate.

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Lisa June 28, 2012 at 9:21 am

I agree that the domineering ones are probably the reason you are having team building in the first place. Everyone has that person on their team, the “yes boss” person. The one that you cant say boo in the office without them going straight to the boss to discuss said boo. This is a person that craves attention, and wants to look good in front of the boss and will step on people to do that. They become the favorites, and then there is team resentment.

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Kelly O June 28, 2012 at 10:23 am

Yeah, I’m going to have to go ahead and disagree with you on this one. Being against forced camaraderie is not a sign you’re the “problem” employee.

And “better management” could resolve a whole plethora of issues, but so could “taking better direction” or “communication” or any number of regular, day to day activities that it seems a reasonable person would just do without being told.

Walking around a room trying to bump elbows is not going to fix that. Being reasonable enough to see that and not want to play the game doesn’t mean you’re the problem. (It might actually make you a great resolution though – provided anyone would listen.)

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Jamie June 28, 2012 at 10:41 am

“I imagine that these type of people are the root cause of workplace problems that might insipre someone to try group building exercises in the first place and that better management could have dealt with those people anyway.”

Why? I actually do build teams at work – recruiting personnel from wildly different departments to work on specific projects and the employees who would make my short list would be those refusing to participate because they would rather do their jobs than walk a chalk maze or build balloon sculptures.

I want a team full of people focused on the job at hand – pleasant and professional, of course, but there is no need for everyone to “feel like good friends” and definitely no place for sharing “deeply personal feelings.” Unless those deeply personal feelings involve your ability to meet our deadline, they aren’t really relevant in the workplace.

I have co-workers for whom I have a tremendous amount of respect and really enjoy our working relationships – but we aren’t good friends. I also have very good friends with whom I wouldn’t want to work under penalty of death. I don’t see what the benefit in pretending that one has anything to do with the other.

“But as far as getting a bunch of receptive strangers to bond and learn to work together quickly than team building.group excercises are amazing.”

Perhaps for you. For me competence is the currency of the realm. Workplace trust and bonds are formed from successful working relationships – there is no shortcut for that.

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Sara June 28, 2012 at 3:20 pm

“I actually do build teams at work – recruiting personnel from wildly different departments to work on specific projects and the employees who would make my short list would be those refusing to participate because they would rather do their jobs than walk a chalk maze or build balloon sculptures. ”

+ eleventy

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Anonymous June 28, 2012 at 4:06 pm

The way I have always viewed it is that it comes down to an issue of attitutde. I understand that sometimes it can be frusterating to be asked to participate in some sort of team building activity especially if you hae other improtant work to do but I dont see why everyone thinks its fine to scoff at these activities, treat them like they don’t matter and the then be disruptive and negative during the activity, ESPECIALLY when it is part of a work program and not some other type of function. If you were assigned some type of project that fell more in line with what your normal work duties were acting in that way wouldn’t be deemed accepatable. At the very least I feel like people who arent interested or who are uncomfortable should refrain from saying anything but so often I see people just tear these things down and make everything a mess by being sarcastic or down right rude.

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Ask a Manager June 28, 2012 at 4:10 pm

It’s because of what I wrote in a comment somewhere else on this post — too many of these activities feel like a violation of people’s dignity, privacy, and physical person. And often they don’t address core problems, so people legitimately feel insulted that they’re supposed to do a rope course as a way to address fundamental management problems.

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Anonymous June 29, 2012 at 2:53 am

Most of these things are organised and designed by the happy clappy manager/staff member who wants to believe we are all 12 year olds at school camp. We aren’t.

That manager is usually not popular already with a portion of the workforce and is a) pulling us away from important work and b) treating us like we are 12 year olds.

A project that produces a result has a stated result and reason. A ‘team building’ exercise is a waste of my working time and unless it is very well targeted is a ‘feel good’ for the management to say they are ‘trying to make people work together better’ but has no idea how to do it without using childrens games.

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Vicki July 8, 2012 at 9:23 pm

Anon – Please read some books or sites (Susan Cain, Laurie Helgoe, Marti Laney, Beth Beulow). There is no such thing as “an ex introvert who is now extremely extraverted”.

You may have been shy. You may be an ambivert all along. Or you may just be in your comfort zone now. But introvert/extravert isn’t something you can “change”. It’s a physiological thing.

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Anonymous June 27, 2012 at 5:47 pm

Worst team building exercise: We did an exercise where we stood in a circle and grabbed the hands of someone across from us (I don’t remember the details but you end up holding the hands of two different people) and then you try to “untangle” the knot without letting go of your hands. You’re in VERY close quarters for a good 20-30 minutes.

Another reason I hated it? I was 16 weeks pregnant at the time and was terrified of toppling over or someone elbowing me hard in the stomach. Instead, I got kicked in the face by one of our directors and pulled a muscle in my leg to stop from falling and pulling over the group. Yeah….

Best team building activity? Never had one that I enjoyed actually. I consider myself an extrovert, but I don’t like forced interactions/games.

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KayDay June 28, 2012 at 9:50 am

Oh, I actually liked the human knot–but we did that in elementary and middle school, when we were much more nimble (and not pregnant!!). I’m not sure I would be comfortable doing that with my coworkers.

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Anonymous June 28, 2012 at 2:07 pm

A lot of the mentioned team building exercises are good for children and games. But not adults… and not ones who should have been given a pass due to ‘medical issues’ as the pregnancy should have been termed. I also would have bowed out of that exercise due to bad balance!

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Vicki July 8, 2012 at 9:26 pm

If there was a +1 button on this site I would click it.
This is exactly the problem with som many “team building” exercises. They’re perhaps good for children.

Getting balloons out of trees. Playing dodgeball (OK, I hated that one as a kid). Running under the parachute without getting caught. Capture the flag (hated that as a kid too).

“Fun” is in the eye of the beholder and if you force people to pretend to have fun They Will Hate You.

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Emily June 28, 2012 at 5:20 pm

The human knot is another favorite from my summer camp life! But I wouldn’t ever consider that appropriate for a traditional professional environment. It’s meant to exercise communication and problem solving, but also to force participants to get comfortable with each other physically, which means crossing social norms about personal space. That’s really not necessary in most fields, and their are more appropriate ways to practice communication and problem solving. Plus, the human knot works best with participants who are all around the same size (and depending on the situation, the same gender). It’s a lot harder to make that work with a group of adults who could be vastly different sizes, not to mention pregnant or have a bad back!

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Julia June 27, 2012 at 5:54 pm

We had an exercise run by a consultant who determined what kind of workplace animal each of us was. The boss turned out to be a “lion” (suprise!). I turned out to be a “monkey” which was great. My co-workers were told that they weren’t allowed to tell me to tidy my workspace because it would stifle my natural simian creativity.

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Danielle June 28, 2012 at 8:06 am

LOL! This made me choke on my Cheetos.

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J June 27, 2012 at 5:55 pm

The school I went to in 7th-12th grade was really big on grade-level camping trips. We did a week each in 7th, 9th, and 12th (a “get to know your classmates” thing for 7th and 9th, and a goodbye thing for 12th grade), and by the time I was in 11th grade they were adding short day or two day trips for the other grades.

We always had some sort of team building thing, but it was more of a collaborative challenge/task than actual warm fuzzies time. I always loved those, because you didn’t have to be GOOD at some sport or something to be successful. You just had to keep trying and being creative.

I remember all sorts! In one, the group lined up on a log and then had to get everyone organized from youngest to oldest, without talking, or falling off the log. (We wrote the dates on each other’s backs!) Another, we all had to figure out the best way to get everyone to touch a tennis ball in the shortest amount of time (of course at first you try passing it as fast as possible, then we realized it’s best to hold it in the middle and have everyone just touch it ;D ). The hardest was probably going through these “caves” in Yosemite (little tunnels and crevices made of spaces between giant boulders). We had to all hold hands in a line, and help each other through the teeny spaces in the complete darkness and without letting go! It really made everyone communicate.

I think corporate retreats are a huge waste of time though, because they seem to be SO expensive and just all about making large companies feel like they’re full of warm fuzzy well-adjusted people. My cousin works for a large US accounting firm — he said as a reward, for all people promoted to a certain manager level, from around the country, they all went to a resort for a week or very long weekend for a team-sort of exercise thing. It sounded incredibly expensive for just… you know… taking introspective walks by the ocean. It boggles my mind — he said the company spent $5 million to rent out the place for like 6 weeks of these things!!! Is that -really- a good use of $5 million?!

Blah de blah, anyway — I wish people would be a little more open to the more tame stuff. I guess not everyone finds it fun though. =\

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Andrea June 27, 2012 at 6:03 pm

I’m pretty introverted, though I also have been known to be the life of the party, as long as the party doesn’t last too long. Ha. I am also pretty particular and snarky. I cannot think of any team-building exercise that I would consider worthwhile or enjoyable. I also don’t think there’s any chance that I could be subjected to one and keep my snarkiness to myself. I don’t like being touched by people I don’t like or know well, and I don’t like being in close quarters with others or being forced to interact or play stupid games or sports or whatever. And more importantly, I don’t think pointless stuff like this helps build teams or whatever. Just assemble a group of smart, talented professionals and remove barriers that keep them from getting things done and then leave them alone so they can achieve things. Hiring people to come in and force your team to interact is insulting.

Now, I will absolutely reverse my position if there is such a thing as a team-building exercise that involves playing with kittens. Somehow I think that could have potential.

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Samantha June 27, 2012 at 8:40 pm

I would be all over team building with kittens! What a great idea. ;)

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Spreadsheet Monkey June 27, 2012 at 9:33 pm

Playing with kittens is always a good idea.

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Andrea June 28, 2012 at 8:44 am

Andrea, we are two like-minded Andreas. I too am introverted, and don’t like being touched, however, kittens are great.

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Andrea June 28, 2012 at 1:11 pm

Awesome. Funnily enough, Andrea isn’t my real name. I hate my real name, but I think I posted under it a few times years ago. Then I posted with my middle name but someone else starting posting with that name. Then I switched to Andrea a long while ago, which is similar to my name. I noticed another Andrea around, though…maybe I ought to change again. But since we have similar feelings on the important things–kittens, namely–it can’t hurt to have two of us floating around these threads.

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Vicki July 8, 2012 at 9:27 pm

KITTENS!
Or puppies. I would do puppies.

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Natalie June 28, 2012 at 9:43 am

“Now, I will absolutely reverse my position if there is such a thing as a team-building exercise that involves playing with kittens. Somehow I think that could have potential.”

That reminds me of exactly the sort of team building I’m not opposed to – volunteering as a group. My team could go walk dogs at the animal shelter and I would be all over that.

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Samantha June 28, 2012 at 8:36 pm

Me too! And the horse one mentioned earlier. I’d be all over a horse one! OMG*****ponies!!!!!!!

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ES June 28, 2012 at 10:03 pm

They had a “Puppy Palooza” at the university where I work during final exams to help the students de-stress. I thought it was brilliant and wanted one for our department too!

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Anonymous June 27, 2012 at 6:09 pm

I used to work for an “outdoors” type of company, and every year we’d have kind of a field day, where you could sign up to learn several activities. It was really fun and sometimes there was great info about products we sold, but it did jack all for team building.

We also had team meetings every couple of months where there was usually some activity, like guess which celebrity or pictionary or something. Again, fun, but at the end I felt no closer to my teammates than before. Mileage may vary.

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Anon June 27, 2012 at 6:17 pm

At one point in the opening years of this century, the branch of a global personal services firm somewhere in Europe apparently decided that they’d make those of the senior staff who were candidates for partner go on a bonding weekend somewhere in the country.
This involved building a raft, the kind of thing people inexplicably think will help build teams (I suppose it’s useful in learning who might be of use in the zombie apocalypse). To the surprise of the would-be partners, it also involved floating ON said raft over a lake.
Since, let me remind you, these were lawyers and accountants not boatbuilders, the raft disintegrated. The lake was only about 3 feet deep, but one non-swimmer – who had been coaxed/bullied onto the raft – had a panic-induced asthma attack, and had to be medically evacuated.

Heads rolled. I do not know quite what they had to pay the asthmatic to keep it out of court, but I understand it was about 18 months salary.

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IV June 28, 2012 at 3:38 am

Brilliant!!!

I had a similar (albeit somewhat less catastrophic to the planner) incident in my last role.

My ex-boss (lovely, lovely man) was organising an event for an offsite, and he decided that we should go Canyoning, here in Switzerland. His rationale was it was physical, out in nature, and involved us working together, encouraging each other etc. Nice idea in theory.

In advance, he knew that a colleague and I were afraid of heights (me) and small enclosed spaces (her). Both of us had been trying to slowly push our boundaries… and because he knew us both quite well, he thought this exercise would be fun because it would also assist us in something we were trying to accomplish privately. Again, nice idea. In theory.

The event began with a 50 meter rappel. That’s a 165 feet drop. And as you dropped, the walls of the cliffs narrowed into this dark narrow space, with a mountain lake in the bottom. We gritted our teeth and did that part, only to realise the next stages were worse. It was a half day event, and having started the only way was to finish the course. There was hyperventilating and actual tears. But we survived, although the team building was a complete write off. It ruined the day for my braver team mates, and caused both of us huge amounts of resentment, for being subjected to something so painful.

That said, the aftermath was great. My boss was one of these people who was obsessed with the idea of lessons learnt. He really preferred for us to analyse our own performance and present a lessons learnt either to him or to the team generally, as opposed to leading the discussion with the things he wasn’t happy about.

The team voted that he had to present a lessons learnt that night, back at the hotel. And actually that, over dinner and good wine… was a pretty good team building event!

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Jessica June 29, 2012 at 6:24 pm

I do not know how to swim (and actually have a fear of water much deeper than my waist due to a near-drowning incident as a child — and bear in mind that I’m only around 5′ tall), so no amount of bullying or coaxing would get me on a raft, let alone one that a whole team of knowledgeable people had just built. I refuse to go on ANY boat with my father-in-law anymore, since he thought it would be funny to swerve quickly in a motorboat once “just to feel the splash of the water” and almost threw me out. I can’t imagine why any team-building incident would involve physical abilities that not all people would have — or common fears (snakes, spiders, swimming/water, heights…seriously?)

When it’s about facing a fear, it becomes less about team building and more about being singled out for having that particular fear.

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Jessica June 29, 2012 at 6:25 pm

I’m going to quit typing today. It’s been a long week. It should say “a whole team of *unknowledgeable people…”

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Chandra July 10, 2013 at 4:25 pm

I had the same fear (and the same height, which I think was part of my fear and I wear glasses, so can’t see in water without them). I just finished a class specifically for adults who are fearful of swimming/drowning/water. life-changing class, comprised of 7 adults like me, in a heated pool and in classroom, over a week, learning how the water works, letting go of my fears. didn’t focus on strokes or technique at all, but by the end, we were all in the deep end, jumping in, playing around. look for miracle swimming (facebook or online), I’m telling you it is the best money I’ve ever spent and want to go back to learn to scuba and play in the ocean.

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Jessica July 10, 2013 at 5:26 pm

I wear glasses, too, so I’m the exact way! I just looked up the miracle swimming, but there aren’t any lessons anywhere remotely near me. Darn! I’ll have to keep it in mind and keep checking back.

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Blinx June 27, 2012 at 6:23 pm

Best: Small, get-to-know-you exercises as part of monthly staff meetings. These were quick and painless, involving no anxiety. We also had many, many pot-luck birthday/holiday gatherings that anyone in the surrounding area could show up for — not as any “official” team building effort. Got to know/talk to folks from different departments.

Worst: “Division” building exercises, involving hundreds of people, usually at a fancy catering hall or country club. All-day, mandatory. Usually involved arts and crafts projects. Once, we made customized welcome signs for Habitat for Humanity new-homeowners. I can’t tell you how horrible they looked, and I really felt sorry for the recipients. I was also appalled at the expense the company had gone to.

The last one I remember was the “bike building” project. That was a little more gratifying, in that we actually built something useful. Had to work together as a team to “earn” the bike parts. But then they bussed in some needy kids to give the bikes to, in person (in front of hundreds of us), and I really felt sorry for them. Yeah, they were getting new bikes, but I think I would have shriveled from embarrassment!

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Michele June 27, 2012 at 6:27 pm

I’m in the slim minority of people who actually like team building exercises – most of the time. And having spent several years heavily involved in volunteerism and serving as an RA in college, followed a 8 year career in the youth-centric non-profit sector, I’ve seen, participated in or facilitated pretty much every single one you can think of.

My absolute worst experience was a workshop facilitated by Second City (yes, THAT Second City) that required participants to engage in and “commit” to a whole lot of improv, which made me very, very uncomfortable. I’m not keen on performance in general (just be real with me!), and improv in particular makes my skin crawl, so this was one team building endeavor I just couldn’t get on board with.

In my experience, the best, most successful team builders are those that are not labeled as such, that come with minimal instruction/facilitation on the front end, but a lot of reflection on the back end. Even better, if they involve getting a group of people to actually accomplish something together rather than hinging on pure hypotheticals.

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-X- June 28, 2012 at 7:26 am

” required participants to engage in and “commit” to a whole lot of improv”

We had something like there where as soon as it was explained to us, I just walked out of the room. Didn’t leave the venue (I’m being paid for my time, right?) – just got out a book and started reading. if the event had been at our offices I would have gone to my desk and started working.

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*Z* July 2, 2012 at 12:32 pm

I feel like I wouldn’t want you on my team. No offense, but if you’re at a company and you can’t get out of the team building for one reason or another, suck it up. I understand the snakes and the canyoning and stuff, but the other part of bad team building is that you and your team can then joke about the one time that X was on stage and everyone thought it was uber cheesy and weird.

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Ask a Manager July 2, 2012 at 12:35 pm

Why? Why should getting on stage be a requirement for being thought well of as a worker whose job has nothing to do with going on stage? Why does an employer get to violate people’s boundaries and personal space in ways that have nothing to do with the job?

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*Z* July 2, 2012 at 4:31 pm

It’s less the specific of it, and more the fact that “Mary walked out of the team-building bs the rest of us are expected to do to read her book.” (Sorry, the grammar of that sentence is not proper…) That would not fly with me. I’d assume said person has a better than everyone else attitude and it would not equal any team-building playing fields. That said, I’d be annoyed if a manager couldn’t articulate why something was taking place and/or couldn’t manage the employee who walked out. It’s like a we’re all in this dumb thing together mentality – and if you’re not in it right now, when I’m trying to get a proposal or report out the door, how do I know you’re not going to be too good for helping with that too? (This is assuming employees on a level scale, ie if the CEO walks out, I assume s/he’s not reading a book, but is attending to something urgent.) If my colleague with the same title does it, yeah…

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Ask a Manager July 2, 2012 at 4:44 pm

I can definitely see that point of view, but if this is an otherwise good employee who’s never showed a “better than everyone else” attitude before, I think it’s worth asking why she’s reacting this way and whether her response is justified. Because it might actually be a reasonable response.

If she’s an employee who’s a problem in other ways, then she’s a problem who needs to be dealt with anyway.

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Vicki July 8, 2012 at 9:34 pm

*Z* – I read a lot of guilt in your post.

“Mary walked out of the team-building bs the rest of us are expected to do to read her book.”

can be translated as

“Mary walked out of the team-building bs the rest of us are expected to do and none of the rest of us (including me) is brave enough to follow her lead.”

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Tax Nerd June 27, 2012 at 7:16 pm

I’m fine with some team building things, but not others.

When I was a staff at a large accounting firm, we usually did some short team-building thing at the beginning of annual training sessions. One time we did the thing of holding hands and then detangling ourselves. The guy in the wheelchair just didn’t participate, which kinda defeats the point. I didn’t mind, but I get that people who don’t like to be touched would loathe it.

More often it was something milder, like “two truths and a lie” where we’d state two things about ourselves and one falsehood, and people had to guess which was the lie. The twist on it I liked was when we had to meet someone from a different office, and introduce them with two truths and a lie, because then it wasn’t about ourselves, but about one other person. If we stopped briefly and chatted about things that were interesting, it was more fun than if we just hurried through it.

For the local office where people already know each other, and the point is to get to know each other better/get along better… uggh, so much harder. We’ve done backyard bbq’s at the boss’s house or a wine tasting* for the entire group, and that’s been okay, because we closed the office to do it, and we mostly got along. We’ve also gone to a baseball game or two, but the fun of that matters on who you’re sitting next to. I have zero interest in baseball, so I wasn’t interested, but getting out of the office and being able to drink beer on a nice day beats working. Cosmic bowling was ok, too, even though I completely suck at bowling. (Sucking at bowling is okay when it’s glow in the dark. When it’s dingy lighting, and people actually care… it sucks.)

It’s so hard when you’ve got interns wanting a couple hours of open bar at a nearby club, middle-aged managers that want to play golf, health nuts who want to go rock climbing, pregnant or older staffers who don’t want to do anything strenuos, and buzzkill beancounters not wanting to spend lots of company money.

*For the winetasting, we had to confirm that everyone in our small office was of age and drank wine. At the time, no one was pregnant, either, so everyone could join in. Now that we have underage interns, a Mormon that doesn’t drink, and a pregnant woman, we’ll have to come up with something else.

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jmkenrick June 27, 2012 at 7:30 pm

These are both school-related, not work, but here goes:

In highschool, I once had to sit through 2-hours of a team building exercise that first involved us all sitting cross-legged o the floor, holding hands with our eyes closed, while the leader described us flying over the ocean into the “temple of the dolphin.” She got very vivid in her description of this imaginary place. It was incredibly difficult not to laugh. After we opened our eyes, we had to watch videos of dolphins and point out the leadership skills they were demonstrating. I am not joking. We did that for well over an hour.

In middle school, they once made us practice arguing in a constructive manner. We had to make up scenarios and resolve them, using non-accusatory statements like “I feel ____ when you _____ because _____.” I felt really stupid at the time, but in retrospect I think it was actually incredibly helpful to have a teacher who drilled that into my head.

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Colette June 27, 2012 at 7:37 pm

One of the best team building exercises I’ve done was a rock-climbing day. We were a little skeptical going in – there were lots of jokes about “if we don’t come back” – but it was an excellent day. It was really well run, which is what made it such a good experience. We talked about things like teamwork and trust – how they relate to the workplace, and how they related to our day’s activity – and then we went rock climbing. Part of what made it fun is that there was no pressure for anyone to take part in any activity they weren’t comfortable with – and I know there was at least one time when I refused.

Had it been with a different group of people or less well run, it could have been terrible, though.

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Ruth June 27, 2012 at 7:47 pm

I enjoy team building in general, and when I worked for a multi-national pharma company as a rep, we went on a 2 day, 2 night team building trip out of the city. We left on Wednesday afternoon and came back on Friday afternoon.

One interesting activity we did involved a group of people from different teams. We were all given a card with a role, and told that one or more of the people in each team were moles and would try to sabotage us. We then had to rebuild a lego model from memory (it was in another room and we got to look at it twice, then come back and build it as a team). When we thought we had identified a mole, we could force that person off the team. Our state sales manager was first banished, then I followed not that long after. I was pretty miffed. Of course as soon as it finished, it was completely obvious that there were no moles, it was a ruse. I don’t know how I missed that during the activity. This could’ve gone very wrong, but it was an interesting exercise in trust and suspicion.

Those two days were awesome overall. Dinner and open bar each night, so other team activities, etc. And the best thing was going home on Friday night knowing we had the weekend too. I don’t miss my day-to-day job, but I do miss the cushiness of the pharma industry.

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Scott M June 27, 2012 at 7:52 pm

We have a “culture shaping” program at my company, which has achieved cult-like status. Many people loathe it, although not everyone. Amongst my coworkers, it’s often jokingly used as a boogeyman… “Better shape up or you’ll be sent back to “. I understand the idea behind it (respect others, everyone thinks differently, assume good intentions, etc). But the exercises were silly and embarrassing.
One exercise was where everyone in a ‘team’ is given cardboard puzzle pieces, and you have to put them together, but no one can talk. OK, I got the metaphor in about 5 seconds… “Teamwork is easier when you communicate”. So tell me why we had to stumble along for 15 minutes to complete a stupid puzzle? How is this even remotely related to communication issues in the real world? Does the facilitator think we are children?
Another was where we had to stand up in the middle of a circle, and pick 3 people to tell them how much we appreciated them. Seriously.. forced ‘thanks’ is never seen as sincere. I tell people I appreciate them, when they do something worthy of appreciation. Not 6 months later in front of an audience! And I HATE being in front of an audience, just to top it off.

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PJ June 27, 2012 at 8:01 pm

At one company I worked at, the secretary organized a day-long retreat. When it was her turn to speak, she announced to everyone on staff that she thought we were all racist. We were stunned, and didn’t know how to respond. She was not forthcoming with any other info about her feelings or why she thought that about us, so there was no opportunity to explore or discuss it. Several employees were in tears. The facilitator (selected by the secretary) was not skilled enough to get us over that bombshell. I know we did other stuff that day, but I don’t remember a single thing other than the secretary’s announcement and the hard feelings that ensued.

At another company, the new Executive thought an obstacle course would be fun to bring his team together. One Worker’s Comp claim later…

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snuck June 27, 2012 at 8:08 pm

Working for a large Australian corporate I had more than my share of frankly shitty exercises – days away in cabins to talk about mission statements and visions. Followed up with some high ropes courses and the sort of things I choose to do with scouts, not my fellow engineers. (Who can all afford to do the real thing if they want to any time they can get away from the office, at the local awesome genuine, REAL climbing cliffs.)

One that did work was bowling – in an adults bowling alley at lunchtime on a Friday, with booze. And a pub across the road for those that wanted to carry on. At least we didn’t hate each other or spend weeks with flash backs of our colleagues ‘junk’ in tight climbing harnesses at the end.

Probably the most dysfunctional workplace environment imaginable, but at least no one was touching me, belaying / safety roping me, expecting me to grab their arse as they climbed or making inappropriate comments about room sharing.

Ugh.

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Erica F June 27, 2012 at 8:25 pm

Outward Bound started a series of corporate exercises and one brutal year, my company invited them to our annual meeting.

One of the exercises involved a bunch of randomly assigned teams and balloon and tape. We were tasked with building the tallest freestanding sculpture with the balloons we could. Our team put a single balloon on the ground and stepped back. When asked why we chose to do that, (and after being told we clearly didn’t understand the task) I was voted spokesperson. I said, “the *point* of the exercise was not to build a balloon sculpture – the point was to bring the team together. We were the only team to actually work as a group mind and with complete consensus. (This was no joke, we all decided on this with no hesitation.) The OB activity leader was annoyed, but we knew we were right.

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snuck June 27, 2012 at 8:33 pm

Haha.

We did something similar – I was an Residential Advisor/supervisor in uni accommodation (in Australia) and the uni brought an ‘expert’ from America to talk to us about culture in university housing and how to address the ‘severe alcohol’ issues. Never mind that 90% of our students were south east asian and alcohol was the LEAST of our problems.

Back to the point… he asked us to draw a ‘world utopia’ on a sheet of paper (the point being that he could then pick on it to the wider group about how X or Y were not inclusive) so we just left the sheet blank and explained it as “my utopia isn’t the same as yours, in fact my utopia is that everyone has their own utopia without name, limits or expectations and this was the most effective way to communicate that” … Again – pissed off instructor but frankly we didn’t feel like drawing 2.2 kids and a christian cross and a tree to be told people don’t have brothers, they don’t worship the same god blah blah blah. I think we unified as a group by deliberately obfuscating and avoiding everything he set us over those few days.

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Anonymous June 28, 2012 at 10:16 am

I had to do that in college for diversity training. Except it was a “planned community” type utopia. I think my contribution was something along the lines of “the roads need to intersect and actually lead to places you want to go.”

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Blinx June 27, 2012 at 9:51 pm

We did the balloon thing too! The worst part was blowing them all up. Too funny that you were berated for actually working together as a team!

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S June 27, 2012 at 9:13 pm

We did a really fabulous team building activity where everyone was required to spend 15 min working with each staff member over the week during which they had to go over a software program we all use but which we had a wide range of skill levels. We also worked on computer skills during this time. It was amazing how much we all learned from each other and how it brought us together.

But before we started my boss took the teams aside and told them they had to have a good attitude–if any one was negative or condescending they would get in trouble–and she did take the one person aside who thought this would be a good opportunity to lecture rather than try to focus on learning together. It was nice also because it was one-on-one so our more introverted folks didn’t feel like they had to talk to everyone.

Interestingly, our program was a real success, and they wanted us to present on it to other branches, but just the mention of cross training was SO upsetting that I think my boss is still getting angry calls at the suggestion. But the training really helped the team come together, because the front line staff were able to show some of the professional staff shortcuts they had learned, and be on an equal level as team mates.

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Scott M June 27, 2012 at 10:47 pm

See, THAT’S team building.. because it actually involves something work related. The whole point of a team at work, is to solve work related problems. There’s nothing wrong with bonding as friends, if you have that connection with someone else. But really, all you can expect to have in common with your coworkers is that you all work a the same company.

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Anonymous June 28, 2012 at 2:22 pm

I’d love that. I’ve asked before if I can do a quick ‘internship’ or ‘work experience’ through all of the departments to aid my knowledge and got nowhere.

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Rebecca Z June 27, 2012 at 9:41 pm

Oh, this brings back some memories! I once worked at a small (15 people) firm where the boss was the supreme dictator. Every October we had a family Halloween party where we had to decorate our cubicles, and then bring back our family members (most of us had kids, but not everyone – but they still had to come) after 5pm to trick-or-treat through the office. There was food and drink provided, and games for the kids. The worst part was the bobbing for apples that all the adults were coerced into. I refused to do it again after the first year and got a ton of grief for it every year after.

We also had a company picnic one summer which just happened to be scheduled for the second weekend in my week long vacation. I told the office manager that I was very unlikely to attend as we would be traveling and didn’t think I’d be back in time. We ended up arriving home at something like 2 am after driving for 7 hours. Promptly at 9am, my phone rang and before I could stop her, my daughter answered. Yes, it was the boss, “simply insisting that I attend since I was back in town.” Since we lived only a few blocks away from the picnic location, we attended – but only because I was convinced she’d come and physically drag me there.

And of course there was the golf outing. Roughly half the employees golfed, so it was announced that there would be a company golf outing one Saturday (again, always on our time – never time out of the office). I, along with several co-workers, said we’d be happy to attend the dinner following, but since we had never golfed would not be golfing. We thought this was a decent compromise. But no! Instead, we were told that golf lessons had been arranged for the non-golfers – at our own expense! I put my foot down at that and said under no circumstances, yadda, yadda, yadda, and they finally caved and grudgingly allowed us to attend just the dinner. But only the people who golfed got the gift bags.

We also had quarterly dinners – again, after hours – which usually went until 8pm or so. I was non-exempt, so I included the hours in my time report. I was told I could only claim the time spent in the team meeting prior to the dinner, but not the time at the dinner because that was paid for by the extreme generosity of our boss.

The funny thing was, we had a really great team and all got along great with the exception of the boss and her evil lieutenant. We were united in our hatred I guess!

Sorry for the novel – obviously I still had some bitterness to purge…

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Gallerina June 27, 2012 at 9:49 pm

The worst, which still haunts me now, was a team building exercise a holiday drama club for kids. I was about 11 and a very, very fat child, so when we did the “trust fall” thing, I wasn’t allowed to do it in case I squashed one of the other children…because none of them could take my gargantuan bulk – this was announced publicly.

It was fortunately all puppy fat which melted away when I was a teenager and I’m still slim today but it just gives me shudders of mortification of shame whenever anyone mentions team building or “trust falls”.

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Anon June 27, 2012 at 10:42 pm

There’s no way to kill team trust and drive wedges between coworkers like a “friendly” competition as a team event for employees whose teamwork is poor because some or all are cutthroat competitors. These things always seem to include “gag” prizes to spotlight the losers and jeers for weeks after. I will never, ever touch a bowling ball again in my life. I won such a competitive team game once – they picked a rope game, and I’m a climber – and it was still painful and embarrassing. I’m with those who go for a comfortable, informal lunch as team building.

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What the? June 27, 2012 at 10:55 pm

I participated in a great team building exercise several years ago, it was based on the amazing race concept, unfortunately without all that exotic travel, basically you had a series of tasks to complete around the downtown area that were totally doable, no we didn’t eat bugs or have to skydive or anything like that but it was really fun and truly was about teamwork. First team to complete their tasks were given cash money, second team etc, 12 teams in total, everybody got something for completing the whole race which took an hour, in the winter by the way, outside, then followed by a company sponsored lunch and the rest of the afternoon off. Definitely a great experience and one i would replicate again, I work in the corporate world by the way.

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Anonymous June 27, 2012 at 10:56 pm

The best one I did at my summer camp was the program aides (basically interns) wrote/led little skits about how to treat PA’s properly and how to dress properly for camp. The ones that needed instruction were the instructees (with guidance).

The best I did at work was two weeks ago when we named all the US Presidents together. We each had a turn (we could pass), and there was a point system that we pretty much ignored. Other similar things were teams answering questions about Disney movies in teams of two. Little pressure, almost everyone has previous knowledge, and it’s silly fun stuff that’s over in a few minutes depending on who moderates it. Also, if it’s something as silly as Disney, it’s relatable without being personal. Still tough on introverts, but it’s not focusing on one person at a time.

The worst was a game where we were in teams and guessed objects. The winning team kept people, the losing team lost them. I lost both times. It stunk. I am horrible at formulating questions.

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Anonymous June 27, 2012 at 11:45 pm

Worst team building exercise:

Taking a bath with my boss and supervisors, although only of the same gender. It’s called “naked relationships” and is thought to build trust. I’ve actually had to do this many times at different organizations. I work in Japan.

The worst exercise I have only heard about is teaming up to pass each other OVER a volleyball net.

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Ask a Manager June 27, 2012 at 11:46 pm

Uh, WHAT? Please tell us more about what this was like, immediately.

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Anonymous June 28, 2012 at 4:32 am

Well, after showering and washing your hair in a group facility, you sit in the bath (natural hot spring) together and talk and “bond.” The idea is that when you are naked everyone is equal and you will feel free to discuss things and joke about things that you wouldn’t in the office setting. Then you get out, dry off, dress in matching pajama-like robes and either eat/drink/sing or maybe just go back to your room, which you are probably sharing with your coworkers. In the morning, you might go back to the bath for a final soak, but it will be faster with less talking. Actually, the group sleeping arrangements bother me more than the group bathing because, when you’re sharing a room with the people you work with, there’s no way to wind down. The bathing part is . . . fine. It’s a little strange to know exactly what your boss looks like naked (and vice versa, obviously). I’m American and this would have freaked me out when I was living in DC, but it’s interesting what you can get used to in a different environment.

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Laura L June 28, 2012 at 9:32 am

That’s interesting. I think people in Sweden (and maybe Norway and Finland, too) use saunas with their coworkers. And you have to be naked in the Swedish saunas, or people look at you funny (the first time I used one, I had my swimsuit on and people kept looking at me).

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Jamie June 28, 2012 at 10:14 am

Wow – this is so reminiscent of the first Evil HR Lady post I had ever read. It was so hysterical and cringeworthy I became a loyal reader immediately.

http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-505125_162-44942386/should-you-get-naked-with-your-boss/

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Liz in a Library June 28, 2012 at 12:01 pm

God…I really love my boss and my co-workers (against the odds, we’re actually all successful colleagues as well as personal friends), but I would rather jump into a vat of boiling oil…

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first time commenter June 27, 2012 at 11:46 pm

My office went through an incredibly difficult period a few years ago where we added a new associate and it went horribly…he had to be let go and it was hard on the entire staff of 16 as everyone hated him and had resentment toward various components of his work ethic (or lack thereof).

A consultant recommended a team building retreat out of town, complete with cabins, dinners out, shopping on the owner’s dime, etc…it was all fun and games until the consultant held an increasingly uncomfortable debriefing session where we had to write down what didn’t like about the associate who was fired…then had to go around and share aloud…then consultant passed around a box for the slips of paper…then consultant presented box to owner and very seriously said, “when you are all at the office again, you need to have a purging ceremony and burn this box with all the baggage inside.” Um…the owner’s face looked like he wanted to pass out and the rest of us wanted to run away. Ugh!

The box was mysteriously left behind…I was the last one out of the cabin the last day of the retreat which meant the owner and other boss had purposely passed right by it. I saw the box on the counter on my way out and knocked it off into the trash. It felt good.

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Ask a Manager June 28, 2012 at 12:01 am

That consultant is having a good laugh somewhere about the scam he’s running. Wow.

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Ask a Manager June 27, 2012 at 11:56 pm

Okay, I have one to share that I thought was effective. It wasn’t really team-building as much as it was a “get to know you” exercise at a meeting where a lot of new people were present. We had to pair up with someone else and in two minutes, write down a list of everything we could figure out that we had in common. Then we switched to another person and did the same thing, until everyone had been paired with everyone. Whoever had the longest list won.

It was fun, because in order to find areas of commonality to write down in a short period of time, you’d have to rapid-fire questions at each other like: Do you like wine? Do you watch the Real Housewives? Have you ever been to Florida? Do you hate flip flops? Do you like Jane Austen? Have you ever broken a bone? Etc.

I liked this and it instantly made people feel more familiar. (Although I’m sure it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, since nothing is!)

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Esra June 28, 2012 at 8:56 am

Do you like Jane Austen?

Naturally an instant yes??

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Charles June 28, 2012 at 9:19 am

Yes, these types of “get to know you” exercises do seem to work. I have used some like this one that you describe. Perhaps, they work when team-building doesn’t because they are not so long (30 minutes or less) and usually don’t require a strong commitment such as something physical.

Another “ice-breaker” that I have used somewhat successfuly is to present a puzzle (word or otherwise; just not something work related) of some sort to the group on the first day of a several-day seminar (usually train-the-trainer in my case). Break the group into teams and see which team comes up with the answer first.

Lastly, my favorite exercise is a Jeopardy game that I use for training review, especially for new hies. Most importantly, I divide the class into teams – this way introverts and the more outgoing can be themselves – no one is put on the spot. Scoring isn’t so important; mainly it is to review. Not really a team-building or ice-breaker exercise; but, it has always seemed like a good way to end several days of intensive training.

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Natalie June 28, 2012 at 1:33 pm

I hate “team-building” exercises, but I usually don’t mind ice-breakers. My favorite is actually also a fun party game – someone writes down a list of famous people (fictional or non-fictional) on stickers and puts one sticker on each person’s back. Then you talk to each other and try to find out who you are.

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Allison June 28, 2012 at 2:48 pm

I hate that one! I don’t keep up with celebrities (which is always the category picked when I’ve had to do it) so I never know who I am and I can’t really give clues to other people. Everyone else always found their person and I was stuck looking like an idiot.

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Sarah Fowler June 28, 2012 at 12:05 am

I worked at a company after college where every “tema building” activity included deep-fried food (usually catfish and I’m allergic) or barbecue (which I’m sorry but I hate), and involved bringing your spouse to some after-work gathering. And oh yeah, you HAD to be there. Now, I didn’t have a spouse (still don’t), and I’m a major introvert. HATED those parties with an absolute passion. To make it worse, all the people on my management level had attended college together and were best friends and good ol’ boys; and their wives were cliquey BFFs too. Ugh. I no longer work there, for so many reasons.

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Sarah Fowler June 28, 2012 at 12:07 am

Um… *team* lol

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Anonymous June 28, 2012 at 12:14 am

Before becoming a teacher, I worked for a nonprofit after-school program that included an group of local high school and college students hired to work as mentors to the kids in our program. My second year, our director decided to start taking us all on yearly team building field trips. The main event that year was a trip to an indoor rock climbing facility, which was actually a decent choice in line with the tenor of our staff. The bad decisions started when he chose to bring along a gaggle of his (non-staff) buddies, but it was after lunch that things took a serious left-turn into crazyville. As we finished up at a fast food place, he led a group that included every under-18 member of our staff on a jaunt to check out the erotic bakery across the street. Then, buddies still in tow, we stopped off at the mall so we could shop for a surprise Secret Santa activity. While there, he talked a teenage girl into buying an R-rated joke book as her SS gift and another teenager stopped off at Victoria’s Secret to pick up a Christmas gift for his girlfriend.

When I tried to put a stop to all of this, I was repeatedly told to lighten up and he was the boss. Since we had all carpooled together (and were 2+ hours away from home) I had to wait it out. The worst part is that when it was all reported up the chain, along with news of his even more horrible and potentially felonious behavior the months prior, he was given a simple reprimand by our Board – who, coincidentally, were all hand-picked by him and included members of his family.

They seemed so legitimately surprised when I quit. He (much) later also quietly quit and move on to a different position at a local college.

I’m thankful that these days my worst team-building experiences are limited to potlucks.* But that train wreck did at least finally teach me how to be more assertive. Next time if the idiot won’t listen to reason I’ll start dialing parents and Board members from right there at the McDonald’s. Not to mention now always requiring that I know the full agenda, with time lines, before I ever agree to help supervise minors.

*Though, God I hate work potlucks. Please stop.

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Cassie June 28, 2012 at 12:43 am

This reminds me of the episode on The Office (season 1, diversity training). That would be awful.

I am extremely thankful that we do not have any team-building exercises at work. There are some parties, like for Halloween that are optional (you pay if you want to partake), and there are those who usually join in, and those (like me) who do not.

A lot of these examples reminds me of stuff we had to do at school (mostly college). In one dance class, we had to introduce ourselves and had to say something that would help people remember our names. I interact much better with my coworkers when I spend *less* time with them – when I used to sit in a different building, I was all smiles when I stopped by the main area to pick up mail. Now, I see them a million times a day and I hate it!

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Kathryn T. June 28, 2012 at 2:17 am

The only time I’ve ever gotten anything out of “team building” exercises is when we all managed to bond together against the exercise leader as a common enemy.

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Neeta June 28, 2012 at 3:32 am

I’m a “long time” lurker, but this is my first time commenting. So hello!

My favorite team building exercise was not exactly an official exercise, but it happened during a team building and in the end we got better acquainted with each other… so I guess I could count it that way.
We had some free time before an official team building exercise, so we decided to go on a hike nearby. One of our colleagues insisted he knew a lovely view around, and led us to it. He missed the track somewhat, and we ended up climbing a rather steep (and muddy) hill mostly on our hands and knees. Since we all had to be back by a certain hour, we pretty much had to watch out for each other so none of us got lost. I still remember the experience fondly, despite the annoyance I felt at the time, for having to escalate a muddy hill.

The worst, thankfully not as embarrassing as the OPs, was a sort of introduction exercise. We each got a set of questions that we had to answer about a given colleague. Since the team was fairly newly formed, barely anyone knew anything about others. These were all really generic questions, like: favorite genre of music, favorite actor, color, happiest moment in life… etc.
Sure we found out stuff about our colleagues, but all in all everything felt so awkward.

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Jen June 28, 2012 at 7:27 am

I’ve been thankfully spared official team building exercises (I would be the snarky one sitting in the back grumbling). The thing that’s been working great for me at my current job is company-sponsored sports. They pay for a volleyball/basketball field for 2 hours each week. I get to play a game I love and hang out with coworkers from other teams, whom I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to meet otherwise \o/ It’s horribly hot here at the moment, but sweating together with 11 other people is fun as hell.

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Anonymous June 28, 2012 at 10:29 am

This is an example of YMMV. I don’t mind this sort of thing except maybe the extreme heat, but my good friend hates it. She was never into team sports; although, she’s very physcially fit, a great runner and was a competitive figure skater until college. She absolutely hated our mandatory group Ultimate Football games.

Key here of course is if the event is mandatory or voluntary. If it’s only voluntary okay. If not not physically fit or simply those unskilled in a particular event often feel excluded and annoyed and not included as part ofthe team.

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Jen June 29, 2012 at 3:04 am

It’s voluntary – only ~30 people participate from the 300 in this location. I would hate it if it were mandatory! One of the sports is basketball and I’d rather stab my eye with a fork than try to play it :P

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Kat M June 28, 2012 at 9:09 am

I used to work in childcare, and our program coordinator has us go out onto the playground to play during an in-service training. That much I really agreed with! But then she decided that captains were going to choose teams (wow, grade-school bullying!) and we’d play dangerous games they don’t even ALLOW kids to play anymore, like Red Rover. NOT the effect they were going for, I think.

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Kelly O June 29, 2012 at 12:30 pm

Okay I have to tangent here – kids can’t play Red Rover anymore because it’s “too dangerous?” Seriously? So I guess dodge-ball is out of the question too?

Geez. I got hit in the face with a kickball once in the gym and basically told to “walk it off” – in 1993. Okay, so nearly 20 years ago but still… I lived.

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Jamie June 29, 2012 at 12:36 pm

Dodge ball?! Now that is a team building activity that could make a difference.

Kidding, as it would be totally inappropriate – but I loved dodge ball as a kid. Maybe I should keep a ball under my desk and just nail people who come into my office to bother me…a dodge ball team of one.

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Jessica June 29, 2012 at 7:02 pm

We played kickball on the blacktop by the gym door. Someone threw the ball between my feet as I was running to first base, and I dove head-first (really, teeth-first) onto the blacktop and broke off one of my front teeth. (I even had a nice black streak on it from the blacktop.) I was told that I was fine and that I could let my parents know when I got home that night to take me to the dentist. o.O Really? I still have a half-fake tooth and that particular tooth died when I was 17-18, so I had to have a root canal from the trauma it received that fateful 7th grade day.

All that to say, we played that with those red rubber balls that had that tread on them. You know? And when I was subbing in Illinois several years after graduating, I was told that those had been banned due to the red marks they leave on skin when you’re hit. Scooters (those wooden boards with four swivel wheels on them that we used to do relays on) were also banned due to fingers being run over. They take all the fun out of the danger in going to school. ;~)

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ThatHRGirl June 28, 2012 at 9:35 am

We have a Family Feud-style game show tournament that takes place over the course of a few days… They use a vendor that provides pretty “real” game show equipment.

We choose “family” names, some teams create outfits, and then we face off for a few rounds. Some questions are just random trivia and others are questions about the business/our customer demographic. Anyone can come and watch the show, and they usually have special food brought in (nacho bar, ice cream sundae bar).

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Scott M June 28, 2012 at 10:08 am

I guess I never understood how team activities that have nothing to do with work, are somehow supposed to build teamwork in the office. If a bunch of coworkers go and play a great game of disc golf, how does that transfer back to an office environment?

Suppose that Tom and Bob work together (I am completely making this up). Tom’s job is to extract information from a computer system and provide it to Bob, who then uses it in his meetings with others outside the department. Tom gets frustrated because Bob never seems to like these reports, always finds something wrong, and just generally seems annoyed at Tom. Tom wonders why Bob can’t just articulate what he wants.

For his part, Bob is annoyed that Tom doesn’t seem to understand the business, or else he would understand WHY Bob wants this information. He would be able to anticipate how the information is to be presented, without Bob having to provide such detailed instructions. Bob wonders why Tom requires such hand holding.

Now suppose they are both great athletes and their team wins the disc golf game. Yet back at the office, there is the same old tension about the reports.

Explain to me how a game is supposed to solve this?

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Jen June 28, 2012 at 10:25 am

For me, this is how this is helpful: I am a technical writer and in this company we’re the red-headed stepchild. No one really thinks that what we do is important, so we usually don’t get a lot of support and our questions go unanswered. Now, since I started playing volleyball with a couple of people from QA, dev and customer services, I hope they will be more willing to help, since they know me on a personal level, not just “that girl from Doc”.

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Scott M June 28, 2012 at 10:34 am

I understand what you are saying. And perhaps your managment ‘hopes’ it will happen too. Sorry they aren’t doing more to help.

Running a business isn’t about tossing everyone together and ‘hoping’ that things will magically work themselves out. If a department isn’t getting a lot of support, then management should take specific steps to solve that. Things like perhaps appointing a advocate for the department who can get the support you need. Or providing consequences for unanswered emails. Or simply doing their job as managers to make sure stuff gets handled.

Making everyone play games in the ‘hope’ that people will do their jobs better, because everyone is suddenly friends… well that’s lazy management.

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Neeta June 28, 2012 at 4:29 pm

But sometimes people who’re friends DO work better in a team. I was actually on the receiving end of such a treatment at my past company.

I was part of a team of 7-8 people, out of which around 6-7 routinely got together for various social activities (eg: poker, clubbing, drinking, etc). I was not part of the group, since my interests lay elsewhere.
I can’t possibly tell you how frustrating it was to interact with these people on the project. If you were part of the happy group you were treated 10 times better than the rest.

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Ask a Manager June 28, 2012 at 4:34 pm

That sounds like a problem of the team running amok and not behaving professionally.

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KellyK June 28, 2012 at 4:54 pm

I agree. It’s *nice* to be friends with the people you work closely with, and it can be beneficial, but if people are being unhelpful or unprofessional to coworkers they aren’t friends with, then it’s their job to knock that crap off—not the odd person out’s job to become best buddies with all of them.

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Kelly O June 29, 2012 at 12:43 pm

I just have to chime in here – I have come to loathe what feels like the inevitable “you have to change because you are the odd one out” conversation.

I have worked with all sorts of different people, across cultures and socio-economic boundaries, and 95% of the time I seem to get along just fine. I’ve recognized that this happens when I work in a more, well, homogenous group, but when I’m the only oddball, it’s been made clear it’s up to me to fit in with everyone else. No one else has to make any change whatsoever, the entire impetus for the success or failure lies with me and my “ability to change.”

I can work just fine with folks without being best buddies. But what’s frustrating as all you-know is working with people who won’t make any effort to talk to you, and who act like they’re terrified you’re going to speak to them. I continue to work, to talk to the people with whom I need to talk (even if I don’t *gasp* like them) and just do my job.

So you can imagine how great it feels when we’re all called together for some “camaraderie” as a group. I usually just volunteer to answer phones while everyone else does their thing. No one seems to mind.

This is such a touchy subject for me because I’m dealing with it daily where I am now. It’s just frustrating to spend so much time trying to figure out how to talk to people and then have them run to your manager because “Kelly isn’t friendly” – and new manager has informed me I “need to be careful” – of what, I don’t even know.

I know it’s a bit off OP, it’s just so freakin’ frustrating to constantly try to accommodate everyone else when no one seems to accommodate you, and then being told consistently you’re not doing it well enough.

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Neeta July 2, 2012 at 5:21 am

“new manager has informed me I “need to be careful” – of what, I don’t even know.”
^ THAT exactly.

I used to get this constantly during my evaluation. Just like you, I had no idea what to change, and when I’d ask I’d always get very vague or downright unhelpful answers.

One time I even got told: I can’t give you an example now, but you need to change your behavior. You can imagine how helpful THAT was.

Jen June 29, 2012 at 1:09 am

Sorry I didn’t make it clear: no one *has* to do this. I’m going because I love volleyball and I haven’t had an opportunity to play it since high school. The people who initiated this were work friends who wanted to hang out, not managers. The “networking” part is just a bonus :D

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Tax Nerd June 28, 2012 at 8:08 pm

I’m with Jen – it helps build rapport with people you don’t work closely with. For instance, if a consultant down the hall mentions that they have to manipulate a bunch of data in Excel, and they’re only intermediate Excel, I can mention that I’m pretty good at creating crazy Excel formulas, and they’re welcome to come ask for help.

Or (at my new-to-me firm) an auditor mentions that they’re doing employee benefit plan audit work on a client, and I’m doing some obscure tax piece for that client, we now know to keep in touch re: that client.

Team building exercises don’t help dysfunctional teams. They do help (sometimes) where the team is new, and (duh) needs some building up. That doesn’t mean they don’t sometimes completely backfire.

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Samantha June 28, 2012 at 8:44 pm

My question is why don’t Tom and Bob just talk to each other to figure out what the other person wants/needs and how the other person can do it/or not?

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Scott M June 28, 2012 at 11:11 pm

LOL you mean besides the fact I just made them up?

Well, I would imagine it’s because they assume that their way is so obvious, that the other person should know what they want, so why even bother to mention it (I see that a lot).

The thing is, this can easily be addressed by specifically spelling out goals and areas of responsibility. If Bob and Tom’s boss would say “Bob, you need to provide Tom with very specific requirements, using this standard project template, following this process here”, and would say “Tom, this is how the business works, and your reports are used by Bob to illustrate these business functions to other departments, so you need to ask Bob these kinds of questions here.”, then perhaps Tom and Bob would suddenly understand each others roles better.

But hey, why do that kind of specific team building? Lets just go bowling…. Tom and Bob will bond over their love of knocking down wooden pins so much that the scales will fall from their eyes and they will suddenly see the error of their ways! LOL

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Samantha June 29, 2012 at 10:22 am

But again if Bob wants something done a certain way why doesn’t he just GO and talk to Tom? Why is that so hard? Why does the boss have to get involved? Clearly I’m living in rainbow land with unicorns and rational thought processes.

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Kelly O June 29, 2012 at 12:44 pm

That, my dearest commenter, is called Common Sense, and it’s painfully lacking in too many organizations.

Apparently things can be too simple.

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Samantha June 29, 2012 at 2:37 pm

Yeah I know believe me. I know.

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Jamie June 29, 2012 at 12:54 pm

And then Tom should tell him that it’s impossible to pull data into reports if it wasn’t inputted into the system in the first place.

Yes, I know Bob. Bob couldn’t spec a report if his life depended on it. Bob doesn’t understand that you can only pull and analyze data that actually…you know…exists.

Tom does understand how the business works (Tom also core duties in analysis as well as keyboard tapping), however he doesn’t intuitively know the exact use and the best format for the numbers without input from the person who is presenting the numbers.

Just tell Tom what you need and you’ll get it – even better than you’ve asked for – but check his resume and you’ll see he didn’t claim to be a mind reader when he applied for the position of Chief Data Monkey.

In your fictional story Tom is the hero and Bob is a horrible human being. I hate Bob.

No, I don’t think this touched a nerve in me at all…but thanks for the opportunity to vent about Bob. :)

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Samantha June 29, 2012 at 2:37 pm

No he’s not. if Tom (or Bob – I can’t keep track) can’t do the report that way why can’t he just SAY so and between the two of them figure out what report would work?

I don’t think anyone should be a mind reader either but if Bob (or Tom) is asking Tom (or Bob) for stuff he can’t do WHY can’t one of them just say “hey I can’t do that. The system doesn’t allow it. Would this work instead?”

honestly.

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Scott M July 2, 2012 at 4:07 pm

This is really getting more complicated than the simple example I wanted to put forth. I thought about coming up with a complex back story to explain why Tom and Bob might be acting the way they are, but then I stopped.

The point is not WHY Tom and Bob are acting this way. The point is that they are not doing their jobs. And when employees don’t perform their jobs, it is the manager’s job to make sure they do it. Period.

It really doesn’t matter WHY they aren’t doing it (beyond some extreme cases – family problems, medical issues, etc). If Tom and/or Bob are too stubborn/stupid/lazy/whatever to figure it out how to work together, then their management needs to step in an lay down the law. Management says “Tom you do THIS” and “Bob, you do THAT”

Now, management would hope that their employees can take initiative and work well together, without having every little action spelled out. But in this case, when it doesn’t happen, the solution is NOT to try to change Tom and Bob’s attitudes toward each other so that they will figure it out on their own. The solution, as imperfect as it may be, is to provide a very specific framework that allows them to get the work done.

Part of this is to solve the immediate problem. But also part of this is to provide documentation for future disciplinary action, up to and including termination. You shouldn’t fire someone just because they ‘don’t get along’ (I’d like to point out you can fire anyone for almost anything, but it’s not always a good idea)). Rather you should fire someone because “Tom/Bob didn’t complete X tasks by Y deadlines on Z dates”.

Hopefully, instead, Tom/Bob now realize what’s expected of them and they work better together because each understands their place in the team. And their manager didn’t resort to some generic touchy-feely teambuilding game to get her/him out of the difficult position of actually taking charge.

THAT’S managing! Dare I say, that’s LEADERSHIP.

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Scott M July 2, 2012 at 4:18 pm

Jamie,

I’ve been in situations where I was Tom, but I understood Bob. And they weren’t nearly as bad. And I fully understand that part of my job is to pull the requirements out of people (sometimes it’s like pulling teeth… there’s screams, blood, painkillers….. well almost)

But I tried to present a situation where the problem was not that Tom and Bob were horrible employees, but more that they were not properly managed. They both didn’t really understand what they were supposed to do. Both had been hired for their specific skills, none of which included seeing the other’s point of view. Proper management would have provided processes and procedures to help Bob and Tom communicate (Better management would have been to hire people who already had experience dealing with such cross-functional communication, but then how often are companies were good at that?)

But rather than providing that framework, management tried to get Bob and Tom to become friends through Disc Golf, so that they could build that framework on their own. That way, management would not have to go to the effort of building that framework (which is what they were supposed to do in the first place).

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Jamie July 2, 2012 at 4:47 pm

I totally get that – and that was one of those posts that was kind of heat of moment and TiC for me – which didn’t come off the way I intended it.

Let’s just say that morning I was totally Tom and Bob was driving me crazy with impossible demands and kept walking away in the middle of my explanations saying nothing was impossible for me – I’d figure it out! Yikes – talk about a backhanded compliment.

But you’re totally right and your example was good – management needs to work for Bob and Tom to both get what they need to do their jobs for the good of the company.

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Kimberly June 28, 2012 at 10:21 am

Best – Last year. August, teacher report day. August just outside of Houston, Texas. The AC for the front of the building was out. The AC in the back of the building (Added 20 years later) was 1/2 working. It was so hot in the building that you could barely breath. AP made up a scavenger hunt. Cross curricular/Cross grade teams were created. We went on the scavenger hunt in blistfully air conditioned cars. Most of the people took laptops and Ipads to restaurants with free wifi to put together their presentations. We “reported” back at 3:30 and were sent home. The next day we showed the results, in a building with functioning AC.

Worse three way tie –
An “trust” activity that required people hold hands and touch each other. Done after a snack that had large amounts of peanut products had been consumed. I got in trouble for refusing to participate. Participating would have meant risking death – yes I’m that allergic to peanut products. (In the last 12 years I’ve been to the ER 7 times for anaphylactic shock all involved touching something with peanut residue 0r being touched by someone who had peanut residue on their hands).

At a training. Feeling out and sharing the results of cosmo inspired personality/psychological “tests”, ending with “sharing our worse experience” so we could be affirmed and healed.

A motivational speaker who was sure we could reach every child as long as we gave over our hearts to his version of god. Did I mention I’m a PUBLIC school teacher in the US. Apparently our administration has no understanding of the first amendment.

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Anonymous June 28, 2012 at 11:10 am

Not in employment but in pre-employment I had one of these:

We were given a slot together bookshelf in pieces and a picture of the finished item. Nothing was marked. We were asked to put it together.

Some people did get a few bits together. Some people did grab a piece and try to count the slots and therefore work out which piece it must be from the picture. A few grabbed a bit but then just started gossiping about the weather. Then the original some decided that the first bit wasn’t right so wanted to take it apart..but just talked about it rather than doing it.

I got told I was too dominant and ‘not a team player’ for asking a direct question to the people as to WHY they wanted to take it apart and also for interrupting the weather-gossipers to ask if the bit they were holding had 4 slots or not.

I didn’t get the job. I was told it was due to the team exercise. The job was 1 to 1 customer calls on an insurance hotline and required no teamwork as a rule. The kicker was when were were told that we were the only group ever to complete the task successfully and everyone who had participated was pleased to hear that.

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UrsulaMinor June 28, 2012 at 11:10 am

My company is pretty small, but they do what I consider to be an excellent team building event, in that it’s not a team building event at all. Every year they hold a BBQ for clients and their families, and everyone is expected to help out (This is literally the only time in the year that they ever ask us to help out with an event on a non workday, and people can opt out if they really, really need to). We all go and set up tables and chairs, linens, center pieces, drinks, the whole nine yards (the food is catered, at least). Everyone helps out, we do something not useless, and then the employees get to drink, eat and chat for the rest of the night on the company’s dime.

The good part is that everyone who is there participates, because it’s all work that needs to get done, not some useless activity that accomplishes nothing. It also works because they make it pretty clear that they are asking us a favor to show up early and stay late for this, and they appreciate that we do it.

You don’t really need to know personal details about your co-worker’s lives to make a team with them. But getting a co-worker to help you heave a table onto a trolley or seeing your co-worker has already set out the chairs so you can arrange them at the tables makes it easier (for me, at least) to depend on them when their labor is not so easily visible.

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Scott M June 28, 2012 at 12:01 pm

“But getting a co-worker to help you heave a table onto a trolley or seeing your co-worker has already set out the chairs so you can arrange them at the tables makes it easier (for me, at least) to depend on them when their labor is not so easily visible.”

I guess its part of my personality that my personality that those things just don’t transfer well to office stuff. Maybe I’m too literal (Just because Joe helps me move chairs doesn’t mean he’s good at his job).

Anyone else have this difficulty? Or is it just me?

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Ask a Manager June 28, 2012 at 1:58 pm

It is definitely not just you. There are people who are really bad at their jobs who would actually be great in a situation like this one. And vice versa.

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Allison June 28, 2012 at 11:27 am

My worst was just last week. It was a year end/team bonding thing for staff at the school I just started working at. We were put in teams and given a scavenger hunt list, but we had to drive around town to find everything. First, I’d only just been hired and had no idea who the people on my team were. Second, I don’t live in town, so I didn’t know where anything was. Third, some of the items were things like a photo of your team singing on stage at a specific bar. Not something an extreme introvert wants to do. Then, once we found everything (or were close to the time limit) we had to drive to one of the organizers’ houses (no directions or address, you just had to know the way), and do a physical challenge. I’m overweight and was in work clothes, not “run two blocks over, jump this fence, climb that playset, run back and do sports” clothes. Plus there was a challenge where every member of your team had to chug three beers (except the driver). I don’t drink and was eventually let off, but got weird looks the rest of the night. The whole thing ended in a bbq at the principal’s house, where everyone brought their spouses (I don’t have one) and got drunk. I ended up leaving after only half an hour.

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Scott M June 28, 2012 at 11:58 am

Chug a beer? At a work event? I mean, I love beer (and my job causes me to drink more than I should sometimes) but that is seriously weird!

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AMG June 28, 2012 at 2:42 pm

Ugh. Literally sounds like a bad dream.

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Anon June 29, 2012 at 1:29 am

Making people chug beers sounds like hazing to me. Never appropriate.

One of the top people at one place I worked wanted all the employees to “come together,” so he organized a mandatory party on a weekend afternoon and made it clear people had to show up at 1 p.m. or thereabouts. Hourly workers didn’t get paid for their time but had to show up (he had someone take attendance), and when everyone got there, they discovered that the food and the big prize drawing were not going to be held until three (or maybe four) hours later. The party was outside and he supplied a lot of beer and not much else. Partway through it started to mist and drizzle. He wouldn’t let anyone who wasn’t a supervisor inside his home — not to get out of the rain, and not to use the bathroom. There were no other facilities. And they took attendance again when the food came out to make sure everyone had stayed.

I lucked out because the horrible event was on a weekend I had to be away for a family event. I’ve never been so grateful for an 80th birthday party in my life.

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Laura L June 29, 2012 at 9:43 am

That sounds horrible. Who does that?

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Jeff June 28, 2012 at 2:57 pm

I actually love team building exercises, but only when they are done by people who know what they’re doing. I’ve both participated and led team-building exercises and they can be incredibly powerful and in some cases life-changing. I’ve done this with both kids and adults, and it’s amazing to see how people’s lives and perspectives change when they go through it. Typically I’ve done this with ropes courses both “low” and “high,” but a lot of the activities can be done without an official ropes course.

The biggest thing for successful team building is that the activities have to have the right level of goofiness and seriousness. So one of my favorites is having a team cross an imaginary river with only a certain number of magic lily pads that they can use to cross (I tend to tie this in with The Hobbit/Lord of the Rings when I do this with kids). Sometimes I’ll also “damage” some of the team members by requiring them to wear slings or blindfold them so that the team has to think about the lowest member of the group. And it’s entertaining to at first to see who the gung-ho leaders are and who the followers are, and if I can identify them, I try to disable the leaders so that it forces others to come out of their shells. But it’s also important when I’m leading the exercises to make sure that the level of discomfort never gets out of control. There needs to be some discomfort (since that’s part of the point) but never to the point of being detrimental.

And for me, the absolute most important part of team building exercises is debriefing right after the activity is done and getting people to talk about their experience doing the activity. My worst experiences in team building is when this is left out. And the debrief has to be honest, there has to be room for someone to say “that was the stupidest thing I’ve ever done” and it is the responsibility of the leader to make sure that is the type of environment fostered. When there is debriefing, that almost always makes the experience better.

I’ve done team building where we only had a couple hours and that team, whether it was a group of office workers or a construction team or a church, has walked away completely changed and it shows when we follow up with them. It’s all about how it’s led and how the debriefing is done.

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Scott M June 28, 2012 at 3:45 pm

Sorry, I’m still harping on the ‘game’ stuff in team building.

How does this transfer to the workplace? How does crossing “an imaginary river with … magic lily pads” relate to anything that people encounter in the office? What kind of skills do you learn with this imaginary game that will help people perform the typical office job?

I guess maybe I could see that it reinforces ideas like ‘helping others’ or ‘not jumping to conclusions’ or some other obvious behaviors. But really, if people aren’t helping others at the office, it’s probably because there is something PREVENTING them from doing that (too busy, reprimanded for stepping outside their area of responsibility, etc). A team building event isn’t going to change things back at the office on Monday morning.

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Jeff June 28, 2012 at 5:52 pm

It’s not about a direct correlation. The whole point is to get you out of thinking in your comfort zone and changing your perspective. A big part of it is getting people to drop their inhibitions and start trusting other people. And that’s one of the things that really comes out of the river crossing. I did that exercise with one of my classes at Princeton, and not a full exercise, and in that 40 minute period, the class radically changed in attitude and perspective. Particularly when people are blindfolded, team members are forced to communicate in a very direct way, and if the leader of the team building exercises is doing it correctly, they will make it so that people will have to communicate in situations that are the most uncomfortable (e.g. the bossy one is the one who has to take orders due to a disabling feature and the quiet one has to make the decision). We want to get the team away from thinking about how it applies to their situation and put them in a situation that forces them to think in a completely different way. And you’d be surprised how that changes people’s attitudes, particularly in the debriefing portion, which again, I cannot stress enough how important that aspect is to team building exercises and why so often they end up not working. Part of the debrief is to get people thinking back in their own environments and how things apply and getting the team to think critically as a group. So we may have done this ridiculous exercise, but what has it taught you about the workplace, and more often than not, the team has no trouble at all finding correlations between their situations and the activity they just completed.

For example, I’ve had groups come in where it is very clear that one or two very vocal people are intent on making the decisions for the entire group. So in my team building exercises, those will be the ones I blindfold, put into a sling, make mute, so that they are forced to be in a position where they can’t make the rules or dictate the direction of the group. And for the rest of the team, they are then forced to make the decisions, and what often happens is that really new interesting ideas of how to solve a problem are presented, and more often than not, the people who are disabled find out that their team members have a lot of good ideas that they never knew about because they never gave them a chance to talk. And the solutions to the problem (which should allow for multiple ways to solve a problem) are often much more creative than if the typical group leaders are in charge. And in the debrief, those ideas come out. Now, if you can tell me that you don’t see any correlation between that and the typical workplace, then I’m missing something.

I will admit that most team building exercises are awful because they are typically led by people who are either inexperienced (i.e. reading an activity off a sheet of paper that they pulled from the internet) or they’re trying to make it this super existential, out-of-body experience that becomes so hokey and ethereal that it loses all relevance whatsoever. But when when they’re led by someone who knows what they’re doing and is focusing on building up the group to work together, I cannot think of a better and more effective way of teaching team skills and developing people to work together.

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Ask a Manager June 28, 2012 at 5:55 pm

Thanks for sharing your perspective on this! But in the situation you described, why not just have the manager do her job and deal with the two vocal/overbearing people, rather than sending everyone out on an imaginary river?

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Jeff June 28, 2012 at 6:10 pm

The manager could just do that, but sometimes the manager has reached a point where verbal communication isn’t enough. We all learn in different ways, and the majority of people don’t respond well or learn well from auditory teaching. Experiential teaching, which should be at the heart of team building exercises, has a much more profound effect in my experience than simple verbal communication. It’s also a way to get people thinking about their own actions in an indirect way, which can also be highly effective.

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Ask a Manager June 28, 2012 at 6:15 pm

I don’t know — personally, I would Not Be Pleased that I had to be subjected to that kind of thing at work just because a couple of other people wouldn’t play well with others and my manager was unwilling to deal with it head-on. I think it’s probably worth taking a bigger-picture view and considering the impact on people who react badly to this type of thing.

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Jeff June 28, 2012 at 6:28 pm

That’s only one specific scenario though, and certainly a manager should be stepping in there, and if the manager isn’t, then yes, team building won’t be helpful. Team building is supposed to be about Big Picture. It’s about getting everyone realizing what their role is and how it works to help the whole team. And the people I’ll disable in activities aren’t necessarily the ones who are troublemakers. Maybe one of the team members is a natural born leader, very inspiring, clearly respected by the rest of the group, someone you can’t live without. Well, in a team building exercise, I will make sure that I disable that person so that the rest of the group has to figure out how to solve a problem without that member leading. I can’t think of many everyday office projects where you want to take your best leader off the job so you can teach the rest of the staff how to step up: that’d be detrimental to your organization! But in a team building exercise, you can do precisely that, and show people how to function when your best person can’t be involved. And that teaches other team members not only what to do in that situation but how they can contribute on an everyday basis, regardless of whether their leader is there or not. If you have an effective team, it means that everyone is contributing toward the goal and that the team continue to function even if one or two people go down (because of jury duty, injury, sickness, retiring/quitting, etc).

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Ask a Manager June 28, 2012 at 6:33 pm

But … but … why not hire competent adults and trust them to build professional relationships and work together? If that’s not happening, a manager needs to step in, and if a manager isn’t fixing it, there’s a management problem. I’m just not seeing any justification for putting adults through exercises like this if it’s not fully voluntary and opt-in.

Jeff June 28, 2012 at 7:45 pm

I think to that I’d say that team building activities are meant to be supplemental, not foundational. And I’d also say that they’re not for everybody. I think there will definitely be people who think it’s hokey or new age or simply too unnerving to do any good. And that’s fine. But like I said, having been a team building participant and leader, there is incredible power in it when it’s done correctly and I have seen groups dramatically change their thinking and attitudes as a result. My sense is that most “team building” is done by managers or well-meaning people who want to try something different, so they go online, say “hey, that’s a cool activity, let’s try that!”, force it on their employees without introducing the purpose or reason for doing it, and end up either offending the group or simply having no impact because they haven’t led it correctly. A good team building leader will get a sense of the group, focus on activities that will work for that particular group and debrief them so that they are understanding what the purpose of the activities are and how they’re applicable.

The parallel I can think of is that if you want to train someone in customer service, you have them do role play instead of giving them a lecture or simply sending them off to learn it on the go. If you want to train someone to cashier, you give them a dummy cash register and go through scenarios rather than immediately sending them on the line. If you want to train someone to work with a team mindset, this is a way to do it. And even really competent, smart, able adults can struggle to work as a team when they’ve never been trained. That’s what I see the purpose of team building exercises to be. I think it’s one of those things that’s very hard to convince people of its worth because for many, the experience has been such a waste of time or so horribly run that it’s been written off, which is unfortunate. It can be a very useful tool, but only if it’s done right. I understand you’re probably still skeptical, which I completely understand. I just know for me, it’s been really powerful.

Ask a Manager June 28, 2012 at 7:46 pm

That’s fair. Thanks for going back and forth with me on it! It’s interesting to hear the other side.

Jeff June 28, 2012 at 7:53 pm

No problem, you’re asking all the right questions! I don’t know how you feel about posting links, but I actually have a link to a facilitator’s guide that talks more about what effective facilitation is supposed to look like. It talks a lot about what I’ve talked about here. I don’t want to break the rules or push it too far, but if people did want to see what effective leading of team building is supposed to look like, I can post a link. If not, I totally understand.

Ask a Manager June 28, 2012 at 7:55 pm

Thanks for asking! Please feel free. (It’ll go to moderation first, as all links do, so don’t be alarmed when you see that.)

Jeff June 28, 2012 at 9:14 pm
Jeff June 28, 2012 at 6:18 pm

I’ll also say that the imaginary river is just one of the exercises and it’s one I tend to use with kids more than adults. More often that not, I try to use situations that are a little more applicable to real life, even if they are more extreme. For example, you’re hiking and you hit an obstacle with these parameters: work as a team to get past it. Another example, your team needs to jump over a fence and you can’t leave anyone behind: figure out a way to get everyone over. It may never be a situation you find yourself in, but sometimes if you can get people using their imaginations and even excited about the scenario, it helps even more to get people to get into the mindset of the activity and start changing their perspective.

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Scott M June 28, 2012 at 8:30 pm

I think we are just going to have to agree to disagree.

For me, the pretending stuff is too hokey for a professional environment. The team building exercises you describe, even though they seem to work with some people, just get on my nerves. They make me feel like I’m being manipulated; it’s not about the game – it’s about how I can be ‘surprised’ about what I learn about myself and others. Of course the purpose is always blindingly obvious, so then I also feel mildly insulted, as if I’m not supposed to be able to see what’s going on. Not to mention the silliness of most of it – where you are supposed to act like you really care about building balloon castles or stepping on lily pads, or putting together cardboard puzzles (oooo isn’t this FUN!?) or what ever other silly grade-school-level activity is being forced upon you, when in reality you are utterly bored out of your skull.

I would prefer to go straight to the debriefing part, rather than the round-a-bout method involving the games. At least there you can get some real information. I WANT to be lectured to. I want a manual. Gimme some real information fer cryin out loud!

Oh and about changing attitudes: You don’t change attitudes in the workplace. You change behaviors. If someone is bossy, or rude, or lazy, you confront the behavior and discipline them (or even fire them) if it doesn’t change. Changing attitudes is for people who voluntarily seek out help, not for managers to impose upon employees

Wow, I didn’t mean for this to go on so long. Here I’ve got myself all worked up again! I guess that these kinds of exercises just really, really disturb me.

But that’s just me. I’ll be quiet now. :)

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-X- June 30, 2012 at 4:32 pm

” is to get you out of thinking in your comfort zone and changing your perspective.”

My work is hard enough that I’m outside my comfort zone from time to time. *Reality* takes us outside our comfort zone – at least for organizations facing the amount of change and pressure that exist in many industries.

But I refuse to be “uncomfortable” unless there is a business goal. At best it’s a waste of time.

And as far as new perspectives – how about building mechanisms to get new perspectives into normal work processes? Or by requiring training or reading or other professional development activities that involve new perspectives directly applicable to the job? Those seem way more important than new perspectives in some game.

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Jeff July 2, 2012 at 3:06 pm

Like I said earlier, team building exercises work for some people, for others it doesn’t. Honestly, the best analogy I can think of that is what team building is trying to do is looking at The Karate Kid. Wax on, wax off. Does it seem directly applicable? No. Is it silly? Yeah. Is it a useful teaching tool? If it’s done right. Is it for everyone? No. The point is that you’re trying to learn something by looking at it through a different lens and angle.

The other point is that team building is supposed to be fun, and when it’s done right, it is fun. It’s meant to build a sense of camaraderie and improved working relationships. Again, the problem that I’ve seen is that most people who lead team building exercises aren’t trained to do so but instead simply pull something off the internet that they think will help turn their team around and then they force their employees to participate. That’s not how team building is supposed to be run. It’s meant to be a fun way to get a group doing activities together that also has a teaching aspect as well. It’s not for everybody, but when it’s done right with people who are receptive to it, it has a lot of power. It’s just sad to me that so many people have mangled it that it’s become something negative.

I’d also add that team building should really be done on some type of retreat with a specific group of people you are intending to train. It should be done with team managers or a specific department, not an entire company. And again, it should be supplemental, not foundational. The concept should have already been taught; team building exercises just give another way to see how those concepts work in action.

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Scott M July 2, 2012 at 3:36 pm

OK, I needed to interject even though I said I would be quiet. I still maintain that camraderie is not built through games. Even if those games might, somehow, possibly, maybe, through some weird tortured logic, be relatable to work. Team camraderie is best built through shared WORK experiences, because work is the ONLY thing that you can be sure all team members have in common.

And for the record I think that they way Mr. Miyagi trained Daniel was not the best. It was just as much about learning to follow orders rather than actual training. Made for good cinema, but that was about it.

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-X- June 30, 2012 at 4:27 pm

Please please no goofiness at work.

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Scott M June 28, 2012 at 3:37 pm

There’s been a lot of griping about team building here, myself included, so I thought I would lay out my ideal team building plan.
1. Everyone needs to know the goal of the team. This is not a vision statement. It’s a multi-page document stating EVERYTHING the team is supposed to accomplish. Basically, you should be able to look at this document and understand a typical workday of the team.
2. Everyone needs to know how they contribute to the team goal. Think of this as a job description on steroids. Not only does this lay out clear expectations for each employee, but it also provides a starting point for training new employees (And bringing current employees up-to-speed).
3. Everyone needs to know how their teammates contribute to the team goal. THIS is what brings the team together. When you know what your teammates do, then you know who to ask for help, and you understand how you can help the team.

Really, that’s team building in a nutshell. Sure there are personality conflicts and such to deal with. But seriously, we’re all adults here. Most people want to do a good job. If they have all this information, how could they fail?

And no stupid games required!

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Jamie June 28, 2012 at 3:54 pm

I would so work for you.

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Scott M June 28, 2012 at 8:32 pm

I would be a lousy manager, for other reasons. But thanks for the compliment!

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fposte June 28, 2012 at 4:29 pm

This actually makes me think of Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto, which talks about these kinds of principles–and that kind of focused, accessible explanation–as important to creating a successful surgical team. And one thing I really liked about Gawande’s work is that it’s set in a realm where you can quantify the effects of your methodology. Ditto CRM in aviation. These things demonstrably, documentably help people get to better outcomes in a way that most team-building exercises don’t.

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saro June 30, 2012 at 1:29 am

I am starting a new branch of a company soon and I’m cutting and pasting your comment as a ‘base’ for my plan of action. Thank you.

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Meganly June 28, 2012 at 4:18 pm

The absolute worst team-building exercise I ever went through was when we were all asked to share our worst moment. It was terrible; people were crying, uncomfortable, and upset. I learned more about my coworker’s childhoods than I ever wanted to know. I felt terrible doing it, but I lied.

That said, with the same team, I did another teambuilding exercise several months later, when everyone was feeling under-appreciated and stressed out. We tossed around a ball of yarn and thanked someone on the team or said something we appreciated. It resulted in quite a web, and there was some speech at the end that I don’t really remember, since it was a bit silly. The nice part was that we all felt a lot better about ourselves and each other.

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Jamie June 28, 2012 at 5:00 pm

This isn’t snark, but a serious question for those who do advocate this: What happens when something like the above (worst moments) goes horribly wrong?

I’m assuming most of the people leading these activities aren’t psychologists, and even if they were they aren’t treating the participants. Some people have some pretty horrific things in their background and triggering that…or how talking about those things can trigger serious issues in other people…how does that work? Who picks up the pieces?

If I accidentally hurt someone in my quest to build a balloon castle, or whatever, work comp covers it. If I share something that triggers someone’s PTSD what happens then?

This seems so dangerous to me – I’m genuinely curious as to how things are handled when this breaks bad.

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Jeff July 2, 2012 at 2:57 pm

Team building should never, ever go there. Team building exercises aren’t about delving into people’s pasts and if a leader starts to go there, they need to be stopped. It’s wildly inappropriate to go into people’s personal lives during team building exercises because we’re not trained counselors or therapists and we’re not supposed to be taking on the role as one. We’re trying to facilitate activities that help people understand the importance of working as a team to achieve a common goal. Anything beyond that shouldn’t be done in a team building exercise.

As to what happens when someone is clearly out of their comfort zone, again, it shouldn’t get to that point if the facilitator is running the activities correctly. In team building, there is supposed to be a safe environment, meaning the second someone feels uncomfortable, they can pull themselves out. And if I, as a team building leader, see someone getting uncomfortable, I pull them out. And as a facilitator, I am supposed to be assessing the group in the beginning stages, getting a sense of what they’re comfortable doing and what they’re not comfortable doing and planning my activities accordingly. You’re not supposed to have a set group of activities that you do every time (aside from the opening activities); instead, the facilitator is supposed to have a large set of activities, ranging from easy tasks to harder tasks, that they choose from based on the group they’re working with.

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regular going anonymous June 29, 2012 at 1:50 pm

I was sexually abused every night for years as a child. The only people that are aware of that are me, the abuser, my husband and my therapist. I am not disclosing something like that at work nor am I comfortable with someone else talking about when they were abused. It sets off too much stuff.

Also, if someone tried to get me to wear a blindfold in public like in the example a few points above, I would absolutely flip out and wouldn’t be able to explain why (nor would I want to explain why). I don’t allow myself to be in a situation where I can’t protect myself and being blindfolded sets off all sorts of alarm bells. I don’t care how many “magic lily pads” there are.

I can do my job just fine without having random people touch me or having to take of my shoes to “connect”. If my manager can’t come to me and tell me personally that there is a problem between me and co-workers, then that’s his problem, not mine.

In short, don’t put me in that situation. You aren’t trained to handle the outcome.

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Ask a Manager June 29, 2012 at 2:04 pm

These are such good points. I hope anyone here who runs these types of exercises will pay attention to them.

(And Anonymous, I’m so sorry you had that happen to you.)

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Two-cents June 29, 2012 at 3:08 pm

I’m so sorry about your experience and hope that you are never again asked to do something that makes you uncomfortable. This is part of the reason that a good, well-trained and experienced, facilitator is necessary, and partly why so many, so-called, team-building experiences go wrong. Just do what you need to do to feel safe.

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Two-cents June 29, 2012 at 3:11 pm

Oops. Meant to be a reply to “regular going anonymous.”

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Jamie June 29, 2012 at 2:25 pm

I am so sorry.

This is exactly why people have no business delving into personal matters at work.

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Meganly June 29, 2012 at 2:46 pm

I’m so sorry that happened to you, and I hope my post didn’t make you relive that terrible time. :( I had similar experiences, which is why there was no way in hell I was going to tell coworkers about my worst moment. It is simply too painful and too private, and something I hadn’t yet sought therapy for. As it was, it was so awful reliving everyone’s worst moments that we all went home 300 times more stressed out and upset, because most of us did not have sunshine-filled childhoods. =/ I suppose we did end up all being very close afterwards, but I would rather have done the human knot or something and maintained a professional distance.

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Lisa June 28, 2012 at 4:47 pm

So this just happened — actually, it’s literally happening right now.

A manager at my office decided to take his team to a fun location in the area to work remotely for the day. There’s WiFi, snacks, and a beautiful setting. Only problem: Picked three members of a totally different team to take along, too. Then later emailed the group to say that four more people can join if they want to. There are about 20 more people on the team.

Yay for “team-building” that emphasizes who’s a favorite of one executive and who isn’t, rather than basing the team being built on actual job function or reporting chain!

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NicoleW June 28, 2012 at 5:54 pm

Wow – I’m really enjoying the comment thread.
I have fond memories of some of the team building and trust exercises I did at my close-knit teen theatre camp. And I do like the idea of improving workplace morale with fun activities. But most of the team building that I’ve seen and heard about in the work world are useless at actually building teamwork. I would be happy to see a mix of useful trainings and morale improvers sprinkled throughout the year. I’m at a workplace that does very little of either.
Worst team-building – We’ve never done any typical team building at work, so my example is from high school. My school picked a bunch of seniors who “they” (teachers?) thought would be good role models and mentors for younger students. Anyone chosen gave up the last day of summer break to come and participate in a bunch of activities on the new ropes course, including “how can you fit all of you on a . A few weeks later, they announced that only half of the students would actually be selected for the mentoring group. They went to meetings (which I’m sure were filled with more team building!), which they weren’t allowed to talk about to people outside the group. It was all really weird and created a new exclusive clique, rather than actually helping any of the other students.

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Mel June 28, 2012 at 8:40 pm

When things like these come up, I can’t help but feel like I’m being robbed of time to finish my work. It really makes me wonder if anyone considers the fact that I have deadlines I want to meet.

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a nonny miss June 29, 2012 at 8:10 am

Just when I was thinking I had never had the misfortune to be involved in team building, I came in this morning to see a mandatory team-building event: bowling. Maybe someone on my team reads the blog…

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Soni June 29, 2012 at 11:46 am

There is very little that makes me less team-oriented more than doing team-building exercises. By the time I’m done learning all sorts of things about my colleagues that I’d rather not know, having the sight of them performing inane, juvenile and often embarrassing antics seared irreparably into my visual cortex, and being forced into inappropriately personal contact and conversation with them, I generally never want to spend another minute longer in their company than I absolutely have to.

Far from strengthening the team, as far as I can tell all these events ever do is make everyone uncomfortable, waste time and money and give office bullies more blackmail and teasing material than they can possibly use in their entire career.

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EventLady June 29, 2012 at 1:30 pm

The best team building exercise I went to was right after my first big event (3000+ concert!) as site manager (I had 25 staff members reporting to me)…which (from a management point of view) did not go well at all.

During my debrief my manager stressed that the real problem was my staff thought I had never lifted a box before and assumed I was some office type who was there to sit in the shade and boss them around. I needed to demonstrate my knowledge and connect with my staff. I was at a lost. I had worked “in the trenches” for two years , but the majority of the staff were new and had never worked with me before.

Soon after the director scheduled one of those team-building exercises where you walk tight ropes, go over hurdles, and climb large structures. Things didn’t go well to start. None of the new staff wanted to use any of my suggestions, but as the day went by I started to demonstrate my knowledge and talk in a more assertive voice. By the end of the day many of my staff from the event were listening to my directions and following my lead happily (especially since we came in first at the maze race) and my climb was the second highest. Everyone cheered as I kept going higher up the structure!

I learned that there was more to being a manager than giving direction and my staff learned that not only was I a competent manager but that I was really interested in their ideas and suggestions.

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Two-cents June 29, 2012 at 2:41 pm

I am late to this discussion, but I still feel the need to add my two cents!
I’ve been a leader of team-building sessions and I’ve been a participant.
Great Experiences:
1. We all went to a park/zoo and had time on our own to enjoy and also spent time in a presentation by one of the habitat managers about how they went about acclimating the animals when new animals came into the habitat. We were all enthralled and we then recalled the ideas for later project discussions for introducing new programs or onboarding new employees.
2. Everyone filled out and turned in an anonymous and low-key questionaire on “favorites” such as food, books, people, movies, quotes, etc. During the day, the facilitator selected one of the questionaires at random and read through it. The group tried to guess who filled out that questionaire. It was pretty easy and low key and we learned some things we didn’t know about other and some things we had in common or agreed on. Of course, if you were tracking, you could guess pretty easily by the end of the session based on who had not yet been selected. Everyone agreed it was a good and interesting way to learn more about one another. In most settings (yes, not all, but most), people like to know about their co-workers and this was an easy and low-stress way to share.
Bad Experience:
1. Drums. I don’t know why there were drums. They were loud and some of us had to walk away to preserve our hearing. After that, “drums “were a shortcut description among some to describe things that didn’t make sense and cost a lot.

Also, FWIW, I’ve had successful team-building with community service activities.
As a work-group, we decided what community organization we wanted to support. We had volunteers do research on the organizations and their needs and the work group chose which organization to support and what to provide: time or materals. We had different “teams” go out and purchase items (on company time) and then as a group we wrapped or packed and delivered them to the organization. Or we all contributed time as a group to sort, or pack, or deliver, or serve, or whatever the organization needed. It wasn’t always “fun” but it did encourage everyone to work together in ways that weren’t possible during our regular jobs. And from what I heard, everyone felt it was worthwhile.

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RKT July 3, 2012 at 8:41 pm

I haven’t read all the responses so not sure if someone else has been through this one, but the non-profit I worked for had a meeting and invited some sort of Pastor lady to come and talk about how spirituality connected with fundraising, or something.

She talked for a bit and then…cue ominous music…the exercises started. I felt that familiar sinking gut feeling and gritted my teeth. We did a few inane things I don’t remember and then- she had us pair up and face each other- our faces no more than a foot apart (“have you ever looked at your co-worker…REALLY looked?”).

She made us stare at this person we work with for a straight minute. It felt like several hours. But it wasn’t over. We switched partners and did it 2 MORE TIMES.

This is uncomfortable as hell with someone you are intimate with. Imagine what it’s like with the VP you’ve met a few times. It was excruciating.

And of course it accomplished…absolutely nothing. If I was asked to do this sort of thing again, I would refuse.

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Emily July 4, 2012 at 8:18 pm

The best team-building I ever did was when our whole staff did the aerial obstacle courses at Go Ape! I was teamed up with a male coworker around my age from my office that I knew and liked, and a woman closer to my mom’s age from the other office who I didn’t know well. We had such a great time together and I really bonded with the older woman and loved cheering her on as she completed the obstacles.

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Tania Luna July 6, 2012 at 5:35 pm

We’ve been organizing team building events for years now with the mission of designing experiences that don’t lead to eye rolling and that actually connect the team. Here are some rules we live by.

1. Have everyone fill out a questionnaire to understand the participants’ restrictions (e.g. phobias, allergies, injuries)
2. Select an activity that is unusual so that everyone on the team is a beginner (e.g. ice sculpting or knife throwing).
3. Avoid team building games (particularly if holding hands is involved) – just do fun stuff together that you would do with friends.
4. Don’t make it mandatory – things are a lot less fun when you’re forced to do them.
5. Introduce at least a small element of risk for people to bond over but not so much that participants have to step far out of their comfort zones.
6. Have a structured component (like a class) and an unstructured component later (like going out to eat together).
7. Have an element of mystery or surprise to build anticipation and intrigue.

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Vicki July 8, 2012 at 9:43 pm

I’ve been exposed to
* overnight off-site meetings that were “mandatory” (I went to some, skipped others, and managed to get out of the “overnight” Portions of most.
* a ropes and tires course (which I missed because I had to go to a class. Wheee!!!!)
* amusement parks (I don’t ride roller coasters)
* tiny race cars on a track (the kind two people can fit in. Ugh)
* a thing where we were broken up into groups and everyone had to d a skit. This was long again Mac OS days at Apple and our topic was “You’ve gone through the System 7 tunnel. What do you see?” Huh??
We winged it. We did so (surprisingly) well that the team that should have followed us sad “No” and people were congratulating us on our imagination and creativity weeks later.
* a day at the San Francisco Academy of Sciences (good) which involved a mandatory “scavenger hunt” (bad) where I was on my manager’s team (she said it was so she could ensure I played along)
*A three-day Erhard Seminars Training for the entire department, theoretically “optional” but with strong (very strong) pushing toward going. I was lucky to have a bad cold that week. (I actually decided to go only because I had the cold and figured I wouldn’t care, but it turned out I couldn’t keep my eyes open.) One of my less bs-tolerant co-workers apparently stood up at 10am, dropped pen and pencil on her desk, announced “I have Real work to do” and walked out. I would ave liked to have seen that.

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Anonymous July 9, 2012 at 1:57 pm

No one works better together than my lunch/happy hour crew. Just sayin.

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Anonymous August 5, 2012 at 6:04 pm

We did trust falls.

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JHrr August 11, 2012 at 10:16 am

I think this is an interesting conversation. Having worked in nonprofits I have done my share of teambuilding exercises both as a participant and as a facilitator. I think some of the dialogue shows that teambuilding works best if it is purposeful, has clear goals, ojectives to be accomplished and ideally is incorporated into a larger ongoing training. There is a process to selecting which activities or exercises will work with each group and in each group’s stage of development, and time in the training. Unless the goal is fun for fun’s sake, the exercise will be most meaningful and effective, if it is lead by a trained facilitator and the facilitator relates the exercise back to a discussion that is relevant to the goals the group hopes to accomplish. Just because something is called a teambuilding activity doesn’t mean it will accomplish this. Activities for activities sake will most likely be seen as a “dumb activity.” I love teambuilding but the stupidist timing of an activity I participated in as an adult was a youth activity called “chubby bunny.” For those not familiar you stuff as many marshmallows in your face as say chubby bunny. The person with the most marshmallows wins. This was done during a volunteer training where volunteers were getting together in a small window of time to support each other and problem solve. There are a ton of activities that would have been fun and interactive and could have related back to organizational goals. However, the person running the meeting thought that if they stuck a fun activity in there somewhere that this would be a great icebreaker or something? I have seen this dumb activity incorporated in a team of mostly younger adults where it was incorporated as a part of a larger training program. Impossible as it might seem it was effective in the context that it was used and with that particular crowd. I can’t speak to the liability of encouraging food being shoved into your face though. Another dumb timing was doing a trust walk with a group of teens and there was no discussion, reflection afterwards. Trust falls and walks can be effective but there is a right time, place, group, and group development stage. Without all of this, they could be emotionally and physically damaging. I love team challenge courses that are done by a skilled faciliator.

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Lexi September 2, 2012 at 6:59 pm

After a very busy month where my team had lots of extra work, training for new departments and tight deadlines, I took them to a conference room, pulled out a deck of cards and we played slap jack for an hour. We laughed, we talked and we destressed from a very intense month. They’ve all said it was the best team building exercise they’ve ever had.

It was the best one I’ve ever had too.

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Anon September 6, 2012 at 11:46 am

Worst:
We had an International Women’s Day event where one of the trainings involved someone reading graphic stories of sexual assault. I had been assaulted in the past and had a panic attack. Even though they had a room with someone assigned to help people, the woman just sent me out to “collect myself” and then whined about her trust fund issues.

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Ask a Manager September 6, 2012 at 11:47 am

How horrible. Even if the person in the room assigned to help people had been good, why the hell should you be subjected to that at work?!

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Anon October 12, 2012 at 5:15 pm

Worse-I was working with an organization that helped underserved kids………

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Laura L September 6, 2012 at 9:35 pm

WTF??? People should NOT be put in a situation where they might be triggered when they’re at work.

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Upcoming'TeamBuilding' September 22, 2012 at 3:11 am

Never been to this site before and I know I’m a bit late… but I’ve been looking for a solution…Maybe someone has one?

I’m in a job where I talk in public daily and have spent put a lot of effort into conquering my introversion/sensitivity/shyness and am darn proud of the confidence I’ve built. BUT! It has been announced that we are going to be “team building” by standing up in front of the other employees (about 100) with personal items and giving them a full explanation of ourselves…why these items of important to us etc etc etc . Of course this terrifies me because 1) I very much value my privacy 2) I am still quite modest an shy 3) and although I can work professionally with everyone I don’t necessarily like all of them :) and want them to know all about me.

I refused to ‘sign up’ because it truly makes me uncomfortable and I have expressed that feeling directly to the team building leader. I was first told “well you have to do it”….then I was informed “oh we’ll just do a day for all of the people that don’t want to do it…and they can just talk in a small group.” It is ridiculous. Either way I’m going to be singled out…

How is forcing someone to feel humiliated in front of their peers helpful to build a team?

I’m considering an illness on my day….any other thoughts?

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Donna July 18, 2013 at 3:30 pm

I would suggest doing it–but make it really basic. Show a pair of hiking boots and talk about the different trails you have hiked on and how wonderful/horrible the weather was. Show your car keys and talk about all of the cities that you have driven through and how great each city was. Keep it generic and you don’t even have to reveal anything about yourself.

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ThursdaysGeek December 28, 2012 at 3:56 pm

Worst (my husband’s): US Federal Gov’t contractor employees had to attend a new-age, semi-religious team building event where they tried to bend spoons with their mind; stood in a circle and had to all sit down in the person’s lap behind them at one time — he and others formally complained about spending government money that way.

Best – my supervisor would offer to buy birthday lunches, and everyone on the team was invited to go. If you didn’t want to go, you didn’t. If you didn’t want to celebrate your birthday, that was fine too. No pressure, just friends and co-workers eating lunch together at the location the birthday person selected, with no negative issues if you didn’t participate.

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Donna July 18, 2013 at 3:28 pm

That sounds like torture!

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Wes February 1, 2013 at 2:04 pm

Every team building exercise I’ve ever been involved in has been a complete waste of time. Let people do their jobs without subjecting them to these ridiculous garbage. I do my best to avoid this nonsense.

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Dave February 17, 2013 at 8:02 pm

Worst: The “team building” exercise (mandatory, on a weekend) was a day of clay target shooting, mainly so the boss could show off how good he was. Some people had never handled a gun before but there was no professional instruction or supervision. We were expected to just pick up a shotgun and start shooting, under threat of disciplinary action if we didn’t. I don’t know if it was even legal. Luckily there was an ex-Marine in the group who managed to teach us some basic firearms safety, despite threats form the boss for him to quit talking and start shooting. We were damn lucky nobody got shot that day.

Best: Another boss organized a “Diversity Day”. When we heard about this it was pretty much horror and bewilderment as that episode of The Office had just been on. But it was organized very differently. No extrernal trainer, no “assigned” roles, no embarrassing talks. Everybody brought in some food that represented their cultural background and we had a shared lunch. Our normal lunch break plus an extra half hour in work time. Anybody who wanted to could talk about the dish and what it meant to their culture. It was brilliant! We learned a lot about each other, and lot of recipes were swapped that day.

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Paul Critchlow July 16, 2013 at 5:21 am

Being here in South Africa, some team building companies believe quadbiking over a mountain range is team building. How can people who do not even have their own cars, then be expected to drive in a single file, nervous as hell, enclosed with a helmet, and briefed before hand about the dangers of keeping arms and legs in ever enjoy the adventure.

Just because some executive has the luxury of quad bikes and has a passion for high risk sports then to impose this on his/her employees.

Once it took me 2 hours to rescue a receptionist over a cliff, fortunately a tree stopped her going further down, and fortunately she stooped the quad going further down, while having the petrol tank empty all the contents on her while upside down. Team Building, phew! For who?

Another one company I worked for, used archery, at 30 meters, only one employee hit the out rim of the target, how was that fun, a few ladies, and men had the bow string rake their arm, Team Building?
When I started my own team building company, I bought hand held crossbows, moved the target in to 8 meters, 100% hit the target, a better feel good feeling among everyone.

I prefer, the art and science of team building. Less of this touchy touchy stuff, and more outcomes based and problem solving. Thanks

Any big mouths in the group, I get them muffled soonest, before they cause damage. MAy only use their hands to communicate, and no touching the activity, neutralizes them and brings others into the role.

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Donna July 18, 2013 at 3:26 pm

I have been involved in physical team building activities in which I saw older staff get injured, where I witnessed staff crying out of fear, and where I was forced to watch staff bully those who were “weak” or afraid. I have seen staff members get angry with non-native English speaking staff during trivia and board games because it brought down their team’s score. My disgust at the bullies lead to me disliking those staff members permanently–I avoided working with these people from that moment on. I also became disgusted at our leadership for forcing us to engage in these ridiculous competitive “fun” activities and for allowing bullying to take place. The team building did exactly the opposite–it made me see the ugly side to many of my bosses and co-workers, a side that I cannot forget.

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Jambar Team Building March 21, 2014 at 4:22 am

I think that just how much team building exercises are successful depends on the facilitator. A good facilitator is one who is able to get people excited to the extent that they let down their walls, thus casting their self-imposed inhibitions out the window, allowing them to benefit from the activity.

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