The Trouble With Team Building

Twenty years ago, team building was about team exercises like making towers out of pipe cleaners or trusting each other sufficiently to fall backwards hoping we’d be caught by our colleagues.

Ten years ago, it was sharing experiences – frequently involving heights – like abseiling down a cliff face or climbing a rock wall. 


Today, team building is about conversation, encouraging trust by being honest about who we are and what we’re concerned about.

The problem with all these approaches is that while the intentions behind them are laudable, they rarely hit the intended mark of changing the game back in the workplace. There are three reasons for this.

1.  An event not a journey

When we embark on teambuilding we instinctively think of it as an event. A one-off that means we’ve ‘ticked the box’ on building the relationships within the team, at least for this year. 

The trouble is that even if the conversations are useful on the day, inevitably without continued attention and focus, most of the impact ebbs away as the real-world crashes in. What’s more its simply not possible to build the relational foundations necessary for an effective, let alone a game-changing team, in a single session.

2. Unnatural and disconnected

In addition to being a one-off or annual event, team building generally occurs away from the office. If we’re lucky it involves a nice location, good catering and leisurely breaks. Similarly, the nature of conversations are not ones we would generally have back in the office.  

The trouble is that even if these conversations and ways of structuring our days deserve to be part of standard work, they’re not. What’s more they require a different focus and type of energy resulting in an artificial ‘high’ that is hard to mimic back in the office.

3. Outcomes not easily measured

The focus of team building is usually on relationships rather than results. While strong relationships are critical to effective teamwork, the work of strengthening them is notoriously hard to measure.

The trouble is this fuzziness is generally reflected in the agreed outcomes of teambuilding sessions: getting to know each other better or developing a more nuanced understanding of team member’s preferences. While these are helpful outcomes, it is difficult to gauge their usefulness over time, or to measure progress. It is also hard to hold ourselves accountable and others responsible.

Yet here’s the conundrum: senior teams tasked with changing the game for their organisation simply cannot do this without working as a team. Yet investing in their capacity to work together effectively is generally way down the agenda for the reasons outlined above. Building a Game-Changing Team is a critical element of individual leader’s success. What is required is a new approach to team building which focuses equally on results, relationships and reflection.

Next time you’re contemplating getting the team together, consider how the agenda might reflect these three things so you ensure real work is done, results can be measured and the process of building the team continues back at work.

Until next time,


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