What Employees Really Think of Teambuilding

What do employees really think about teambuilding activities?

By Compiled by Mimi O’Connor & Jenny Sherman June 17, 2008, 11:13 AM EDT

Illustration: Hennie Haworth for BizBash

The notion of teambuilding has spawned an entire industry dedicated to building stronger group bonds, improving communication between coworkers, and gaining a deeper understanding of process and personal dynamics, all through activities like white-water rafting, bike tours, and cooking classes. But do these things actually work? Do employees enjoy them? And do lessons learned through ropes courses or scavenger hunts help once staffers get back to the office? We went straight to the source—the participants—to hear about their most memorable teambuilding experiences.

Joe, marketing firm director of market research: “One exercise I did required half of a team to be blindfolded and led through the woods. At a certain point, the team was asked to travel a distance using wood bridges—boards laid on the ground. The amount of wood available was insufficient to cover the entire distance, so different layouts had to be employed to get everyone across. What was interesting with this was how many teams failed to involve the blindfolded participants. I have found these ef- forts to be very helpful and capable of breaking through old styles. The problem has always been that we return to our old company and old ways. New skills have to be reinforced, something my former company did not allow.”

Ben, former magazine production manager: “With games, I can get really competitive. On a scavenger hunt, I ended up being aggressive with the president of the company. She got upset—in a bitchy way—and said, ‘God, you’re really competitive. I didn’t know that about you.’ She actually came back and apologized for her tone afterward. She kind of met her match with me, and I was an assistant, so it kind of made it even funnier.”

Lisa, catalog buyer: “It was my third week at my new job, and I had to go to a weekend retreat. The first day we had to sit under a tree, because it was really hot out, and there were three-inch caterpillars falling from the tree, crawling through the grass toward you. It was really disgusting. This was while our boss was supposed to be giving this inspirational speech. Then they wanted to play kickball. Even though they said there was no pressure, you didn’t feel comfortable sitting on the sidelines, because you thought, Now I’m not participating. But when was the last time you had to kick something or had a ball coming at you really fast?”

Paul, marketing firm vice president: “The outdoor ropes courses are always the most fun. The most interesting—and challenging—one was a high ropes course that I did as part of a retreat. It was about two or three stories up, and you attached yourself to cables with two calipers. It was perfectly safe; however, the perceived risk of being up so high is a challenge to overcome. A number of people could not overcome it and froze. One guy got so disoriented that he wound up disconnecting both calipers from the cables at once and had a hard time following the instructions to get himself back into a ‘safe’ position. That threw people—instructors and participants—into a little bit of a panic.”

Judy, pharmaceutical marketing director: “We played a game called We Built This City at a leadership meeting. We had to build not only the tallest structure but the most structurally sound one. What made it the most fun was that the rules changed along the way. You learned how people think and their reactions to things: who was a team player, who was not, who dominated. We were going through a lot of change at the company at the time. There were new people in new roles, and it made you think about that and how you could react better to change. I think it brought everyone closer together.”

Ben: “We had a retreat where we went to a resort for seminars and speakers. Throughout the whole weekend, you were paired off with someone, and we did all of these really physical activities that were pretty uncomfortable, considering these were your coworkers and you don’t have much body-to-body contact with them normally. I was paired up with one of the jock guys, and even though I never really talked about my personal life, I think it was pretty much assumed I was gay. I think people were amused by that pairing, especially with the physical contact. I was so uncomfortable, I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.”

Joshua, former finance marketer: “I worked for a home-equity lending marketing department. Following record sales, my department accompanied the sales force to an off-site meeting at a large amusement park—a party for most, but my version of hell. After enduring hours-long presentations of undecipherable slides on P&L, we segued to a teambuilding exercise led by paid facilitators. They regaled us with accounts of the park’s model brand-equity strategy, which bore little relation to the subtleties of marketing mortgage products. Then they set my team loose on a scavenger hunt that would, ostensibly, ‘leverage’ each of our strengths to complete it ... but turned out to be little more than an activity one would expect at a kid’s birthday party. We found it more annoying than constructive, and our collective irritation soon flared into conflict. In the end, we united with the goal of completing the task so we could get back to our hotel rooms and take a nap. The only outcome was a facile debriefing involving a quantified score on our group work style that did not offer any meaningful insight into our office dynamics.”

Diana, communications consultant: “On our agenda for the yearly meeting, there was something boring like ‘large group brainstorming.’ So when all 400 of us got together and facilitators came out with drums, wearing African prints, people were shocked. Once we found out what we were doing, a few people—mostly older men—walked out, since they thought it was dumb. We split into groups and were each given the name of an animal common in Africa. After that, we had to come up with some sort of cheer—some were guttural chants, others were weird cheerleading things—that embodied our team and animal. There were arms waving, people stomping, but mostly just some lame attempts at an African chant, which was hilarious, since there wasn’t a single African in our group. Then we had to do these weird physical things. We had a rope wrapped around us and we had to extricate ourselves without letting go of the rope. People really rolled their eyes at this one, especially since it involved climbing over and touching other coworkers. The final part was the drumming. Some of the younger men whaled on the big drums, but by and large, it took a long time for them to build up any sort of enthusiasm. I personally liked this part the best—it sounded cool and got people moving a bit. In general, people were game but looked pretty bored. Our leader got a ton of snippy emails, so it’s likely that they won’t do something like that again. People need to loosen up.”

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