When team building goes awry

by 25 Nov 2011

HR regularly allocates large budgets to corporate team building activities, and has big ideas on how to host the perfect activity.

Gabriel Edwards, business development manager at Circus Oz’s High Flying Teams & managing director Engaging People, told HC that while team development is a business critical process, it’s often offered by an unregulated industry that offers a wide range of experiences (some positive and some not so) without necessarily understanding the realities of business teams and their needs and challenges. 

Edwards said this has led to confusion by employers and employees about what team building is and is not, and what the outcomes of team building should be.

For this reason, it’s worthwhile considering what you don’t want team building days to turn into – because a badly executed event can have disastrous consequences.

In an extreme example of team building gone horribly wrong, a Californian woman was last year awarded $1.4m after being subjected to humiliation during a company teambuilding event.

Janet Orlando, 57, was a saleswoman for security company Alarm One Inc, and a Superior Court jury found that she should be awarded damages after she was ‘spanked’ in front of her co-workers with a competitor’s yard sign.

Her lawyer commented at the trial, “They made a middle-aged woman go in front of mostly male co-workers between the ages of 18 and 24, bend over, put her hands on the wall and spanked her with a metal sign.”

Her employer claimed it was just a camaraderie-building exercise. Orlando said she was embarrassed, permanently scarred and mentally anguished by the fraternity-like atmosphere and sales-building exercises at the team building event.

David Jacobson, owner and founder of New York-based corporate event planning company, TrivWorks, set out a glimpse of what the very worst imaginable employee team building event would look like. Unfortunately, some of his points are all too common:

  • Attendees have had no input as to the event’s activity, nor do they know the goals

  • Attendance is mandatory, under threat of disciplinary action

  • Event is held at a location with no mobile/Internet service three hours away, on a holiday weekend, during the height of the busy season, amidst a major client crisis

  • The environment is sparse, uninviting and uncomfortable; there aren’t enough seats, grotty bathroom facilities, etc.

  • The tone is serious and authoritarian from the start, with no fun or social elements at all – just a cold, hard look at what has to change, or else

  • Talk centres strictly on what’s wrong with the team, company or industry –  or even worse, focuses on the flaws of teams & individuals who are present

  • A poorly planned, one-size-fits all activity with zero customisation – in fact, it’s the exact OPPOSITE of what would be appropriate for the group’s age, demographic, interests and dynamic

  • The hired team building “experts” have no clue what they’re doing, the activity is boring, offensive & poorly run, and attendees are tuned out from the get go

  • Exercises are held outside in inclement weather, requiring lots of exertion – think a 100-degree day with 100% humidity, a freezing cold day or a torrential rainstorm

  • Activities are extremely physically demanding, requiring the group’s older, infirm or disabled members to sit the event out

  • Individuals are isolated alone to work on individual projects for extended periods of time, actually preventing collaboration, communication and teamwork

  • Not enough food, drinks or breaks for the duration of the event

  • Senior managers aren’t present – in fact, they are off having their own “team building” dinner at a fancy restaurant

  • Employees actually leave feeling more disconnected, demoralised and insecure about their abilities to work together as a team than when they arrived

These are of course extreme examples, but by considering the worst team building event imaginable, it becomes clear what you want to avoid when planning/running employee activities, to make sure that yours produce the exact opposite – the best team building experience possible for your staff.

For more team building and corporate event tips, click here.


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  • by Mike Symonds - Interactive Events 25/11/2011 4:18:28 PM

    What a great article. Having run fun team events for thousands of corporate clients we realised pretty fast what a team bonding event should be about.

    It needs to be fun, easy to participate in (no excluding people based on their physical, mental or emotional limits)and interactive (most people need to be engaged most of the time).

    We find that no matter the group there will usually be one or two who aren't that keen to participate. What works best is to frame the event as a challenge by choice. If something doesn't rock your boat, take a half step back, watch everyone else have fun and then step back in when you are ready.

    It is scarey really. I recently had a call from a potential client who wanted to run an activity that would 'scare' her staff. Because she felt that would help them bond more. In the end I refused to even quote or suggest a suitable activity.

  • by David Jacobson - Founder, TrivWorks 26/11/2011 9:46:57 AM

    Thank you so much for referencing my recent blog post re: "What The World's Worst Team Building Event Looks Like!" It is indeed an all too common occurance, and I am so glad you are bringing the subject to light.

  • by Michael Boehm BCom MBA 28/11/2011 10:10:55 AM

    My recollection of an excellent team building / bonding experience was some many years ago in my old Artillery unit. It was an exercise that required the team - the gun crew - to manually handle a field gun (know by civilians as a cannon) through the bush, up a hill, and into position. The task was relevant, as was the “team” i.e. folks who usually work together, not a random number of people cobbled together to form a team. The task was extremely difficult but within scope of expectation of the occupation. The key points in the experience were the relevance of the activity, and the team. Unless there is relevance, participation will be poor, and the activity will be found to be boring except for the few that are easily amused and appreciate a day away from work, and the company can check off the “to-do” list. This is the “check box” mentality, for those who engage in team building exercises without understanding the concept or having the experience to deliver such an exercise - as identified in the article. I believe the idea of what constitutes "team" is little understood. A "team" is not a random number of people allocated or assigned as a team. This kind of grouping results in little more than a mob led by the loudest / strongest; with participants contributing only that which is sufficient to deflect attention or barricade against attention from the other team members. Worse yet, there appears to remain some who believe that team activities result in natural leaders emerging; some reality TV shows infer such a flawed view. The unfortunate reality is that teams assembled randomly perform only at the level of "competence" of the team leader; in this case the loudest or strongest (sometimes the bully mistaken as a natural leader).

    A "team" is in fact a carefully orchestrated and manipulated number of people who are carefully selected for their skills set and disposition so that the right dynamic occurs between members resulting in peak performance of all members in attaining a common goal. A related point with respect to the topic of teams, team leaders and leadership is the often discussed and delivered – leadership training including defining what a good leader is, the traits of a good leader, and considering whether a leader can be a manager and vice versa. It is time we dispensed with our obsession regarding traits of good leaders, as similar traits can be identified in leaders with dark histories as much as those we admire. The better deliberation is to consider the question “What is the difference between a Manager and a Thug?” The answer is, that both are capable of achieving similar targets, but only one leaves a trail of irretrievable damage. This point with respect to teams translates thus – a poorly formed team and team building / bolding exercises also potentially result in irretrievable damage.