A reader writes:
I’ve been in my office for about 10 months. When I initially joined, we had a weekly event called Friday Fitness, where each week a different person would lead a quick 15-minute workout. Everyone in our office thoroughly enjoys Friday Fitness because it breaks up the monotony of our office desk jobs and is a great team-building activity.
Unfortunately, the success of this event has prompted my manager to start initiating new team activities. Today at our staff meeting, our department head mentioned that she would like us to think of some team activities that we can do on a weekly or monthly basis. One idea was that each week we would do Show and Tell where one person would bring in an item that was very important to them and would explain its meaning to the office. Another manager suggested that once a month, we each bring in two photos from our childhood and then our office coordinator would put together a slideshow that we would watch while eating popcorn.
When these ideas were being floated around, I almost fell out of my seat! All of my childhood photos are in a different state and even if they were easily accessible, I don’t think I’d want to show them to my coworkers. Only one other coworker and I raised objections. I said this was beginning to feel a bit like summer camp and all of these team activities were becoming burdensome. In response, I got very pointed stares from all of the managers in my department.
I trust your judgment, so could you please tell me if these events are a bit weird? Or is this just something I should get used to since it’s the office culture? I don’t mind fun team-building activities but all of these are so personal. I don’t want to show my childhood photos! The frequency in which I’d have to participate is also annoying. Since I’ve only been here for less than a year, I would hate to start looking for a new job, but I honestly don’t want to participate in these activities. It also sucks being the one of the only people objecting to these activities because then I’m pegged as not being a team player and I don’t want that to affect my manager’s perception of me.
It’s weird and it might be something you have to get used to if it’s part of their culture.
Lots and lots of people would find this stuff off-putting, a little invasive, and a waste of time. You aren’t weird in feeling that way.
And I’d bet that your manager would be hard pressed to explain exactly why she thinks these activities will be helpful, and/or that she’d have vague language about building camaraderie that she wouldn’t be able to back up with anything more specific.
To be clear, there are people who enjoy this kind of thing. The issue is that there are also plenty of people who don’t and who find they do the opposite of building team spirit … and there are just so many more effective ways of team-building that it makes no sense to invest in thinly justified activities that are likely to feel inappropriately invasive to at least some people on any given team.
Good managers build strong teams by having people work together on projects with clear goals, clear roles, and appropriate feedback and recognition; creating opportunities for people to get a deeper understanding of each other’s work; and giving people the chance for meaningful input into the direction of the team.
It is (usually) helpful to create ways for your team members to get to know each other better, but you do this through stuff that’s voluntary and low-key and which (a) doesn’t take huge amounts of time away from what people are actually there to do, (b) doesn’t violate anyone’s privacy, and (c) recognizes that what’s fun for some people is misery for others (public performances, athletic events).
It doesn’t require delving into anyone’s childhood, and it definitely doesn’t involve pointed stares at people who raise questions about doing it at all.
However, if this is the culture there, then this is the culture. Especially as a relative newcomer, there might not be a lot you can do about it, at least not without really jeopardizing your relationship and standing with your manager.
But if you’re sucked into participating in this stuff, you can often covertly change the assignment to be something more palatable to you. For example, if you’re told to bring in childhood photos, just don’t — explain that they’re all with your parents (or wherever) and so you’ve instead brought in this photo of your dog/camping trip/niece/whatever you are willing to share. If you’re asked to bring in an “item that’s important to you,” you can bring in something relatively impersonal — the pistachios you’re addicted to, or your Twilight DVD, or whatever else you’re willing to spend two minutes talking about.
But yes, know that you’re not alone in being annoyed by this.
(Also, I really hope those Friday Fitness activities are voluntary and no one is shamed for not participating. Some of us prefer to start our Slothful Saturdays early.)