Forcing people to do things they don’t want to do is no way to build a team

There was a fad a few years back for companies to send teams of employees (or maybe just managers) on a certain kind of ‘team-building’ activity. These would always be outdoors and would involve some strenuous (and often muddy) physical activity, maybe paintballing or even an army assault course.

I’ve seen a few of these in my time and enjoyed some. I’ve also occasionally managed to be “too busy” or have holiday “already booked” for ones that I really didn’t fancy. One department I used to work in did actually have a real army assault course as a team building activity. That was one of the ones I managed to be “too busy” for. Of course I heard the stories the following week. Apparently the worst bit was a pipe submerged in muddy water that you had to hold your breath and crawl through. Now that doesn’t sound very pleasant to me, and not surprisingly, some people flat out refused to do it. Other (less senior or less strong-willed) people didn’t want to do it but did it either because of peer pressure or because they felt they were expected to do it by the enthusiastic senior people in the department. (The unenthusiastic senior people were the ones like me who stayed away.)

Now tell me – how does an activity that some people refuse to do and others do but only after developing a serious resentment towards their boss help with team building?

The answer of course is that it doesn’t. Army assault courses are fine in the Army, where people have signed up because they actually like this sort of thing and where the ability to crawl through mud is directly relevant to the job, but for a mixed gender, mixed age, mixed fitness level group of office workers? Not so much.

Thankfully that sort of nonsense has gone out of fashion recently. In fact, ‘team building days’ have gone out of fashion as companies have cut various budgets. However, team building activities can still make economic sense for a lot of companies, if they are done right.

How do you do them “right”? Well, here are my golden rules for real team building activities:

  • Don’t eat into people’s own time. No matter how much fun the activity is, people won’t see it as fun if there is something else they’d rather be doing, whether that is doing their aged mother’s weekly shop, reading a bedtime story to their children or exploring the new World of Warcraft expansion. This is the single most important rule.
  • Make it fun.
  • Don’t make anyone do anything they don’t want to. As soon as you’ve done this, you have separated that person from the team; you have made them different. This can be difficult, since different people will find different things uncomfortable. The trick is to find an activity where different members of the team perform different roles, so there is something for everyone. And when you think about it, isn’t that how teams tend to work anyway?
  • If you can, get people out of the office and into a different environment. It doesn’t have to be outdoors, but if everyone is still in the same office, it will be difficult to break out of that work feeling.
  • Avoid situations where the most senior person in each team becomes that team’s leader by default. One of the objectives of your team-building activity might be to develop your more junior staff. This is harder to do if they have to accept the same junior role in the team-building activity. Try making the captain of each team the youngest member of the team. You might not want to put the managers into the teams initially. You could have a team of managers, but if you do that, there is more of a risk that they’ll not take the task seriously – either joking among themselves or spending the day working on their smartphones. Something clever you could do is keep the managers in a separate pool and let the teams bid for their services (you might want to do this with a sealed bid system so as not to upset the manager whom nobody wants, and make sure each manager is assigned).
  • Try and make it challenging, but at the same time not like work. Have a little bit of healthy competition so that the teams that do well can feel proud, but not so much that the teams that do badly will feel embarrassed. If you have some budget left over, why not have some money for charity and let the winning team choose the charity.
  • Bear in mind that different people will enjoy different challenges. Not everyone is going to like solving mathematical puzzles. Not everyone is going to like pretending to be a detective. What you are looking for is a challenge that offers something for everyone, is mostly fun for everyone all of the time, and never asks a single person to do something they really don’t want to.
  • Try and do something a little bit different. Most people have done a treasure hunt at some point in their life, so if you do one, try to add a little bit more – some strategy, some problem solving and some creativity perhaps.
  • Finally, although you don’t want to do anything too similar to the participants’ actual job, there’s nothing to stop you running something that will challenge people’s job-related skills. This can be a fantastic way to identify talent within your organisation. Looking for someone to organise an important client entertaining event? Well how about that department secretary who led her team so effectively in that team building charity challenge we ran for you…?

The next time you are thinking about organising a team-building activity, and you want it to be genuinely effective and useful for your business, ask us for help. Give us a call or drop us an email.

By Mark Poles

Chartered Accountant, Google Qualified Advertising Professional, Google Analytics Qualified Individual, creator of "You're Hired!".