Human Resources Leadership

Reasons why team building fails

Team building exercises are one of the most commonly used group-development ventures in many organizations. However, not everyone is convinced of their value. Some people actually question whether those indoor or outdoor activities even work at all.

Most of us tend to just assume they are in fact quite powerful, but now it’s to time to deconstruct the issue and ask about its benefits. Considering the amount of money and effort that companies spend on building their teams, it’s super important to analyze the effectiveness of those team building exercises. 

First of all, we should start by examining the difference between team building and socializing exercises. Even though some companies treat them as one and the same, they are in fact not interchangeable.

Socializing vs Team building

Kate Mercer warns [1] us not to confuse actual team building with social meetings or entertainment events. They can go together hand in hand, but they serve different purposes. Socializing should create togetherness and break the barriers of formality.

Team building on the other hand should be focused on creating a better team. It’s about ensuring that real work gets done skillfully and in a positive atmosphere.

“With skilled facilitation, team members draw all the lessons they need to about how they communicate, operate in meetings, collaborate to get things done and make decisions”

You can use team building to clarify your teammates’ roles and their accountability. It’s about doing things in a way that will save time and effort during a real-world work project or task. 

It can be embarrassing

One of the major issues with team building exercises is that they can make some individuals feel uncomfortable. Such activities often require physical aptitude and confidence which are not necessary in an employee’s current position. You need to remember that people may not be satisfied with their looks or physical capabilities.

So putting them on the spot in front of their coworkers by emphasizing those qualities can be a bad idea. In such situations, they may become self-conscious and afraid of losing their confidence, which they actually possess while fulfilling their work duties. 

Team building focused on skills

Kenneth Stålsett, who wrote a doctoral thesis on team development, suggests that team building should be focused on developing skills that are needed in everyday workplace. For instance, if Paul is a software engineer and he spends most of his time in front of a computer writing codes, he might not feel happy with an exercise that involves lying on the floor and touching other colleagues. The same may apply to, let’s say, Susan, a middle-aged, shy accountant. She might not find it funny to perform a team building task, where she’s blindfolded and led by her colleagues in front of a whole department.

Think about that if you’re considering a team building exercise which would include endurance tests, zip lines or other possibly uncomfortable activities. Instead of having fun people may feel weak or even ostracized. Come up with exercises that are suitable to your team’s work skills, requirements and their temperament. 

Competition can increase tensions

Stålsett observed that giving people group challenges often results in the reinforcement of character roles within the group. It means that strong individuals become even stronger and the weak become weaker. Is that the outcome you would expect from a team building exercise? I guess not.

It rarely happens that a person who is “bossy” on a daily basis will suddenly become quiet and let others take the lead during an exercise. And that old, repeating pattern can demotivate less powerful colleagues so they won’t want to engage in any team building activities. What’s the fun of playing an awesome game if you’ve got a “boss” who tells you what to do all the time?

“(…) we saw that it’s tough to get the person with greatest influence to pull back once this pattern has established itself in the group.”

Playing paintball can be a fun way of socializing, but it doesn’t automatically solve any work problems or build a high-quality team. Instead of helping competition can easily turn positive energy into negative feelings between teammates. You need to be a great observer before choosing a team building activity in order to assess if competition doesn’t reinforce toxic behavior among your team. 

Don’t use force

Forcing people to do anything in life is typically a bad idea. The same applies to team building activities. By forcing employees to take part in so-called fun games you risk achieving the opposite of your goal. They may perceive it as some kind of a sweetener, something they need to attend to satisfy their managers but not necessarily themselves. Kate Mercer suggests that we shouldn’t force people to be sociable:

“There’s nothing worse than to be ‘forced’ to be sociable, especially if your job is on the line. You have an obligation to work effectively with your colleagues, but it should never be obligatory to play with them too.”

Encouraging people to socialize within a team is not harmful when it’s done in a casual way. Friday pizza is a great idea to gather all the team members in one place and break down the “office” barriers. Teammates are obligated to work efficiently but they shouldn’t be forced to socialize with each other.


Some managers believe that whitewater rafting or paintball are the best way to retain employees, especially millennials. They presume that it’s enough to organize a few hours of fun exercises and it’ll make all the work problems disappear. It’s a huge shortcut, a short-sided perspective. You might even call it wishful thinking. It’s also not something that all of your employees will expect. A study of How Millennials Want To Work and Live conducted by Gallup [2] found that:

“Most millennials don’t care about the bells and whistles found in many workplaces today – the Ping-Pong tables, fancy latte machines, and free food that companies offer to try to create job satisfaction. Giving out toys and entitlements is a leadership mistake – and it’s condescending. Purpose and development drive this generation.”

I’m not criticizing all the social meetings and entertainment events but you need to be aware that poorly performed team building activities won’t lead to improvement. They can actually result in destroying relationships and breaking up the team’s cohesion. Without proper facilitation fun activities can turn an average team into a toxic one. 

In my next article I’m going to explain you how to organize team buidling session that actually works.


[1] Kate Mercer. (2016). A Buzz In the Building: How to Build and Lead a Brilliant. SRA Books.

[2] Gallup, Inc. (2016). How Millennials Want to Work and Live.