Questioning team building exercises

When you start a corporate job, you often encounter some – perhaps – strange routines and ideas about how people should interact. But one that might seem the strangest is the ubiquitous notion of team-building exercises, designed to make the team work together, accomplish tasks and overcome obstacles to achieve a united goal. The reason should be obvious: those are all the same goals for a business and for you as employees. However, is this just a tired tradition or does it actually work? As with all things related to people, things are a bit complicated.

What are team building exercises

Exercises to encourage team-building can range from simple, indoor group activities to extensive, more dangerous, more strange ones. For example, the entire team can simply play inoffensive board games, like Monopoly or perform things like blind driving, where a member of the team directs another with voice commands, to enable absolute trust. (This relates to another popular exercise where you fall backwards to trust others to catch you.)

The main thing is that it must involve a team, or a many teams, all acting for a mutual goal and in an effective way. The more an exercise is dependent on genuine cooperation, the better the exercise is.

Do they work

Research is difficult to work out. For example, Cameron Klein and colleagues published an article in the scientific journal Small Group ResearchIn conclusion:

“Results (based on 60 correlations) suggest that team building has a positive moderate effect across all team outcomes. In terms of specific outcomes, team building was most strongly related to affective and process outcomes.”

Thus, there is evidence here that specific team building exercises work – but even here, they work for specific things as per “affective and process outcomes”.

However, there are reasons to be concerned, as Lindsay Olson points out:

“[S]ometimes the best efforts to connect a team fail. These tend to be the events planned by executives who don’t understand the team climate. For example, if there are personal conflicts on a team, inviting them to play paintball may only serve to increase hostility and competition rather than eliminate those feelings. It’s important to take into consideration how the team interacts currently and plan non-competitive activities that break through existing issues. If co-workers rarely speak to one another, focus on communication exercises. If trust is an issue, focus on activities designed to increase trust among team members.”

The Telegraph reports however that it might even be embarrassing. This embarrassment might carry though into how one operates. For example, if you did poorly in a fitness exercise, you might struggle to face your colleagues in the office for the shame of failing them. Similarly, that shame is unrelated to actual work, which is what you are actually trained in: not sporting activities.

So if you ever see your boss looking for exercises, nature, or even bike parts online, be sure to consider what kind of exercise he might be seeking and wanting – it might not be too bad, though you do have reason to be suspicious if it for an activity you feel too ashamed to perform, for whatever reason.