If You Need Team Building Exercises, You Have Bigger Problems

Todd Schnick

I don’t know, maybe I am cynical. And I haven’t lead a large organization since 2002, so maybe I am out of practice.

But I think team building exercises are a waste of time.

Last week, I spent a few days at The Ritz Lodge at Reynolds Plantation, and over the course of the visit, observed what appeared to be a corporate retreat.

At one point, I was in the lounge catching up on email, when I observed a bunch of people running around doing a scavenger hunt.

What a waste of time. These are well paid, seasoned professionals, experts in their field (I assume), running around “looking for something shaped like a heart.”


Here’s the funny thing. Since these people didn’t know me, and I was pretending to be deep into my work, they spoke freely as they passed by so that I could hear.

They weren’t saying “What fun!” Or “I am really getting to know you better Bob.” Or “I feel so inspired, and my confidence is growing, for hunting for and finding an hotel employee name badge beginning with the letter J really builds my character!”

Instead, they were saying (an actual quote): “This is f__king stupid.”

Hmmmm. On the basis of this limited feedback and one data point, I predict a banner year for this organization!

Look I know someone worked very hard to organize and prepare for the event, but I have to think there is a better use of that time. And I understand that teams do need time together to strategize, plan, solve problems, and co-create solutions.

But I would rather use that time in a different way.

The organization referenced above spent a lot of money to put on this event. I have to think there is a better use of those funds and time:

1. Spend that money on new individual learning. And I don’t mean forcing people to attend some boring lecture together that only benefits a few people in the room. I mean let people choose some individualized learning that inspires them, motivates them, and makes them better. And I am not suggesting it has to take place at this particular event. Give them a learning bonus or some such.

2. At the event, use that time to be damn sure people know what the organization’s purpose is. To remember why they work there. To remember why the work they are all doing together matters, and is changing the world.

[And if a teammate isn't on board, let them go. Fast.]

3. At the event, give those same people alone time to create/brainstorm on things on their own. Or with teammates if they choose, but don’t force them into anything structured. Give them free time to spend as they choose, thinking about how to be better.

Just a few ideas. What would you add?

In my humble opinion, when you have a large amount of employees counting down the hours til 5PM, dread work on Sunday nights, that doesn’t love its work and is no longer inspired by the creative and the problem solving work, that’s usually when some idiot in management suggests “team building exercises.”

And as evidenced by the reaction I heard from one of the employees above, it ain’t working.

Remember, these are real people, living human lives. They aren’t just some random name in the company directory and HR spreadsheet.

Treat them right. Don’t force them to do stupid human tricks.


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Drawing by Hugh.

  • Frances

    Well said, I am in Human Resources and I LOATHE these things, and recoil in horror when it is suggested, they rarely accomplish what needs to be done.

  • Todd Schnick

    thanks for reading frances. do let me know if you need a lock of my hair for a scavenger hunt….

  • http://twitter.com/Teambonding Teambonding

    Todd, you have been an observer of part of a scavenger hunt and make some pretty general statements. We have produced hundreds of these events although not this one and have found that these type of events do work and they do bring people together, which can translate into forming genuine, collaborative relationships with their co-workers. With these bonds in place, teams are more effective and productive.

    Individualized learning is not the answer or the replacement for this – it certainly has its place but neither you or I saw the end of this event. Some treasure hunts come together in the end where everyone wins, other have a debrief that brings the event back to how it relates to work. Scavenger hunts per se are not a lot of money and more than likely, the group spend a lot more money on their continental breakfast at the venue than they did on this event. I can’t tell you if this was money well spent but i can tell you, what you saw typically is not reflective of on of the many companies to choose this type of an event. To take this very small sample and make a statement that team building itself is a waste of time cannot be the way you make all of your decisions. Scavenger hunts have their place and this one I would guess was part of a larger conference with learning and workshops and dinners and golf.

    For every one of these you can show me I can show you any one of the 700+ team building events we did this year and show you companies that do benefit from what you consider a waste of time. It it good topic for a blog but to be fair in any statement like this, you might want more data

  • Todd Schnick

    hey there, thanks for contributing, and adding to the debate! of course, this is based on my opinion and from my personal experience. but i’ve found these exercises not very effective from past, personal experience, and that of others.

    can you shed some light on some case studies where they have been effective? i’d love to learn more and see what’s working! thanks…

  • http://www.facebook.com/ed.selvick Ed Selvick

    Hi Todd:
    I have partifcipated in several of these things, and I agree with you. For the most part, these things usually take place at field team sales meetings, which seems ironic to me.
    Organizations are always looking for “hunters”, who, by their very nature are loners. Same goes for the “road warrior” type. So why do these same companies want them to participate in “team building” exercises? Not sure who these are aimed at.
    Like you, I think that individualized training would be much more effective. FIne tuning your top performers, who all need something a little different, would be an ideal use of both corporate funds, and the sales team’s time out of the field.

  • Todd Schnick

    you know ed? i wasn’t even thinking deep enough about doing “team building” exercises for hunters and road warriors who might not benefit, or need. not to mention introverts like me, who despise things like this, and there are a lot of us… thanks for reading…

  • Havana

    Yeah, having been part of many team building exercises this year, I can say that it doesn’t create LONG-TERM cohesion and bonding. (Though admittedly, I wouldn’t say it negatively impacted us either– I did find myself in situations where I had to communicate with folks in my company I never talked to before! But again, we are not anywhere close to friends or even close teammates)
    I worked PT at Target once and there was one practice I always kept in mind in case I ever become a manager somewhere. They had a bulletin board where people got to post “thank you” notes and public posts of appreciation for specific coworkers. “Thanks, Andrea, for picking up my shift when I had to visit my mom in the hospital!” “Thanks, Brandon, for helping me close this week!” “Thanks, Joanna, for entertaining me during our shift this morning!”
    Not only does it give that individual appreciation, it encouraged positivity and team mentality amongst everyone. It also encouraged you to pick up and DO more for the team and focus on giving due credit to others instead of focusing on yourself so much .. and when you focus on others, you WILL shine.
    WHen I worked at an ad agency last year, they had this great personal development culture and even a LIBRARY of self-help and professional development books that you could borrow from. You would grow as a person but there were definitely some tightly bound cliques in that company .. moreso than other places I had worked. Is individualized learning the key? I am not convinced so …
    Cliques will form in any organization and any community. When we do team building exercises at the place I work at, people generally retreat to their cliques and little outward reach is actually achieved. What’s the solution? Honestly, I have no idea bc I am still early in my career. It is something I am constantly observing though …

  • TonyParker1

    I think that team building events can be good things for businesses to do as they can help build in office relationships between staff that could help towards better productivity which would be good for any business.

    But I do think that it is important for businesses to pick team building events that will suit their employees and that they will enjoy.

  • Todd Schnick

    yeah tony, but most organizations don’t put in the kind of thoughtful care that is required…