On Loathing “Team-Building” Activities, and When They’re Appropriate

When I first got into this business almost 20 years ago, I quickly adopted a mantra: “No trust falls.” Most people’s experiences with trying to help groups collaborate more effectively — especially in corporate circles — falls under the category of “team-building activities” — rope courses, escape rooms, cooking classes, and yes, even trust falls. More often than not, I find these entirely misplaced.

Having fun together is a wonderful intervention. I personally love these kinds of activities. I think games in particular reveal so much about human nature and about group dynamics, and that they’re a fantastic and fun way to develop collaboration muscles.

The problem is that, with most groups, there are often simpler, more straightforward, higher-leverage interventions that people should be addressing first, things like having real, sometimes challenging conversations about roles and agreements. You can even do these in dynamic, dare-I-say fun ways! However, when you avoid doing this work in favor of team-building activities, the latter can come off as corny, irrelevant, even harmful.

All that said, if you’re doing the necessary work, a good team-building activity can be a wonderful complement. My friend, Pete Kaminski, has a saying for remote teams, which his friends jokingly refer to as The Pete Rule:

Time together in person is too important to spend working.

What he meant was that a lot of work can easily be done remotely, but developing deeper bonds is much easier face-to-face. When spending time together, people should prioritize accordingly.

I’ve been coaching a client on developing good team habits and was recently advising him on an upcoming offsite. Over the course of several sessions, we talked through his goals and walked through a number of possible exercises and scenarios. Finally, I sat back, thought for a long moment, then said, “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I think you all should just spend a day doing something fun together!”

So-called “team-building activities” have their place, but only when designed with intention. Always start with the work first.