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Step away from the Lego - four reasons why 'team building' can damage teams


Do you get that sinking feeling when your MD, Department Head, or HR suggests you 'do some team building'?  Do you have ghastly visions of yourself kneeling on the floor with a bongo between your knees, playing the drums in a conference room?  Or building Lego constructions against the clock in competition with another department?  Unfortunately, it seems many people have come to equate 'team building' with 'doing creative or sporty activities with other members of the team.  However according to Kate Mercer, co-founder of Leaders Lab ( and author of 'A Buzz in the Building', these types of activities do very little to build a team.
Here's why:
1.      There is a very large learning gap between doing activities on Dartmoor with your colleagues and working with the same bunch of people back at the office.  It is possible to draw parallels and bring out useful learning points, but it takes skilled facilitation to do this effectively and it's especially difficult to ensure that people take the learning back into the workplace.  So why introduce the gap?
2.      Not everybody looks forward to these activities.  They may not be fit, confident or sociable enough - in fact, some people would rather die than go through the embarrassment and humiliation.
3.      It's patronising to assume that your team members won't be able to focus on real work activities and gain enjoyment and satisfaction from putting in place a solid platform for doing even better work together in future without the sweetener of so-called 'fun and games'.
4.      It's making the very common mistake of confusing leisure/social/entertainment activities with actual team building.  The former have their place, but not all work colleagues want to do these things together - and it's not essential. If you want to build a team, do team building.
So what does Mercer mean by team building?
Step away from the Lego - the best team building activities are the ones they should all be working on anyway, for example, creating their strategy for the short, medium, and long-term future or clarifying their roles and accountabilities with each other.
Using real work tasks in this way, as the 'exercise' the team has to do to become a better team, gives you a double whammy.  Not only does the team bond over the work, but you get real work done - usually the sort of work that there is very little time to do properly in the hurly burly of day-to-day tasks.
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 - and they are doing useful stuff which will save hours of time and effort back in the real world.  In addition to this, there's no gap to bridge when they get back to the office.  They have been working on real tasks, and they carry on working on real tasks together.  It's called experiential learning, and it's proven to be the way mature adults learn new skills and behaviour most effectively.
As to leisure or social events, by all means have these if you all want them, with participation on a voluntary basis.  There is 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!
So if you really want to strengthen your team then 'step away from the Lego' and choose activities that are relevant to the work of your team.

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