Why Your Teambuilding Failed

A Teambuilding (Mis)Adventure

Leaders – how many of you have experienced the following?

Funny because it’s true. Teambuilding activities don’t always engage the audience – and it isn’t their fault. They may not be the right audience! Diagram idea via Jessica Hagy | Indexed.com.
  1. You realized you had a problem in the way your people worked together.
  2. You decided to invest in a teambuilding activity at your next meeting.
  3. Your people engaged in the process, some willingly and some grudgingly.
  4. You went back to work.
  5. There was practically no change in the way your people worked with each other afterward.

What happened? Why isn’t teambuilding improving performance in my company? Some people said, “That was great!” Others said, “That was a waste of money.” Unfortunately it turned out that both groups were right.

There are many reasons why teambuilding exercises, activities, and investments may not work. Most common among them, in my experience, is that you were not really a team to begin with.

You Aren’t Really A Team

Don’t panic – the fact that your group isn’t a team is not a criticism! It’s simply a matter of a word being misapplied by many people over many years. The real meaning of the word has gradually been forgotten.

Here’s the thing: a company is not a team. A division is not a team. A group of people working in the same building or on the same floor is not a team. A group of people doing similar tasks across an enterprise is not a team. A group of people who like each other is not a team.

Here’s the thing: a company is not a team.

That’s not a bad thing. But if you’re not a team, then no amount of teambuilding is really going to improve your group’s performance in the long term.

Your group isn’t a team if it doesn’t have certain characteristics, such as complementary and adaptable skills; a specific, meaningful, common purpose beyond some mere managerial mandate; and shared authority and accountability to each other and to any outside audience. (Refer to Harvard Business Review for more.)

If your group is a collection of people doing related jobs in cities across America, your group probably isn’t really a team. In my consulting days, I had hundreds of colleagues whose paychecks came from the same place, who shared my job title, and who had similar and often complementary skills. We all wanted our company to be successful. But we were working in different places, on different projects, for different purposes, and with different people. We were not in any real sense “a team.”

Many if not most companies who host large meetings or conferences and schedule “teambuilding” activities are not actually building or strengthening teams. If they expect performance improvements, they will probably come away disappointed.

So What?

“That’s all well and good,” I hear you saying. “But what do I do about it? Just skip teambuilding altogether?”

The short answer? No. But I will suggest a couple of things to think about:

  • Rethink your terminology. Don’t use the word “team” loosely – make sure you are applying it to groups that really have the characteristics of teams.
  • Rethink your activities. Fun is fine, but make a point up front of setting clear objectives for the activities. (Remember – if your group isn’t a team, these objectives may not be what you read in your management book about high performing teams!)
  • Rethink your expectations. The group activities you are investing in actually have value. They just aren’t really addressing what you – and the activity vendors – think they are addressing!

Next week: Find out what you’ve really been doing when you thought you were teambuilding!



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