The Big Idea is: Nobody likes team building

In our Season 6 opener of DBAs@Midnight, we talked about (among other things) the giant pain that is company-mandated team building.  I’m writing here from my experiences as an IT professional, with many years of work, and many hours wasted in “building teams”.

Team building assumes that you are part of a working team – fair enough so far – and that non-work activities can help strengthen and improve the relationships within those teams, with the end goal of better productivity for the company. It really does seem like a fine idea, as far as that goes, and I applaud managers and brass for realizing that workers are more than cogs in a machine.

The thing is, a great many people hate-hate-HATE team building.

I’ve been to team building events that included silly games, dancing, picnics or bowling, pointless (and endless) motivational speeches COMPLETE WITH LOTS AND LOTS OF POWERPOINT, and on and on. The active stuff was generally embarrassing. The picnics and bowling were nice I suppose, but afterward measured little to no impact on working conditions; it was effectively a company party. The speeches were…not good for anyone’s enjoyment of life, to say nothing of productivity. Never has so much minesweeper been played by so many people, in such a small, sweaty room.

One of the big problems is that team building is rarely done for teams – it’s done across departments, and so you have groups of people mixed up together, doing things that at least half of them despise.  It’s hard to plan even a party for a large group of people, much less a goal-focused set of activities. Too many personality types. The introverts won’t want to sing, the extroverts will get bossy about the logic puzzles, the lazy ones will spend all their time on Plants vs Zombies 7, The Reaping, and now you’re not so much team building as you are shoring up existing roles.

And the really great thing is, it’s always mandatory. You never get asked whether you’d like to participate in team building, or what might interest you, or how you think these things might be run well.  In short, team building tends to be a funnel that transforms perfectly useful time into long, awkward uselessness.

I’d like to hear from people who’ve had good team building experiences. I’d like to hear from those of you with bad. And, can team building be done “right”?

Happy days,
Jen McCown


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10 thoughts on “The Big Idea is: Nobody likes team building”

  1. Not sure this qualifies exactly but back in January, a team member who’d recently been on sabbatical returned and asked if we wanted to have a day of the week where we had a team lunch. We’ve got a big common/break area next to our group’s work area and a food very close by. So, even if you don’t brown bag, you can get something quickly and have lunch with the team without wasting too much time. We put it on the calendar for Monday and we get pretty decent attendance. We try hard not to talk about work and there’s no pressure to attend. We have anywhere from 80% to 40% participation. It’s a good way to just connect in a way that our weekly team meeting isn’t. The only drawback is that it doesn’t include our two remote team members which is always tough although we see them about 4 times a year, at least.

    1. See that’s nice, and non-mandatory. Even better, it came from within!

      If you guys SUPER wanted to include the remote workers, I suppose you could Skype lunch with them…bit of a stretch though…

  2. Team building worked for me when I was in the military, like these cadets in the picture. You had to be a team/family when you are on a ship everyones life depended on it.

    As corporate peon, “team building” would be better served by giving departments and project members money for lunch. People need to see co-workers as individuals. The whole “ropes course with trust falls team building” is a crock of crud as far as long term team building. My spouse disagrees, however.

    1. See, it seems like it would work far better with people who are physically active for a living, and also have to (potentially) rely on their teammates for crucial enterprises like not dying. Or keeping a ship running well.

      I like the money for lunch idea…

  3. We recently went as a DBA team (5 team members, 1 manager, 1 director) out to lunch at a sushi restaurant and then to a skeet shooting club for an afternoon of getting sore shoulders. Not all of the team likes sushi but the restaurant had other options. Not everyone is a gun enthusiast, but by the end of the afternoon we were all having a good time interacting on a personal level. We even squeezed in a brief discussion about how to improve our team and the department in general at the end while getting ice cream at a local dairy.

    Contrast that with an IT department (100+) activity this week where silly games were played where people participated only because they had to and several people conveniently disappeared for. The teams were random and as soon as the games were over the teams dispersed. Not so good.
    However, the rest of the department activity let people enjoy the afternoon as they pleased. We had volleyball, Frisbee golf, Frisbee football, basketball, soccer, relaxed conversations, and some people just went home after lunch to be with their families. People got to do what they wanted to do in the second half of the afternoon and ended up befriending and getting to know other co-workers they otherwise wouldn’t interact with. Good.

    So it really depends on the group and the activities, I would say. You can’t throw people together with embarrassing games and expect magic. On the other hand, if you provide an atmosphere where people can gravitate to their interests you might not get 100% team involvement but you will get more involvement and team building than you would otherwise. And in small groups you can usually find something that most everyone can enjoy and that will foster a better sense of “team”.

    Just my two bits…and probably then some.

  4. I used to work in a department that had a fantastic environment for personal growth, that allowed me to get where I am today. One thing our boss did was plan team building activities each year at our annual meetings. (The company, and thus our department, was spread across sites in NYC, Cleveland, Duluth, and SoCal.)

    The worst activity, as it turned out, was when he brought in a Lego Mindstorm robot kit and asked us to build a working, programmed robot with a defined activity. It was the worst because one guy was totally into Lego and the technology, and effectively took over. I ended up sitting back and watching, because there was nothing I could contribute.

    The best activity, from my perspective, was when we went to a ‘brew on premises’ place and brewed a kettle of beer. Because Beer!

    That said, that team was the best group of people I’ve ever worked with, and though I left that company six years ago, and all but one person has since moved on, we still periodically get together for dinner and adult beverages.

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