Making Teambuilding Count: 3 Common Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

Michael Glazer is a Tokyo-based Senior Consultant whose client work spans 15 countries across four continents. Learn more about Michael here.

Recently, I met a former colleague for dinner, and the one of the first topics of conversation was “what are you working on lately?” When I told him I am facilitating more and more teambuilding workshops he rolled his eyes and leaned in to tell me how much he hates the teambuilding events because “those things are a huge waste of time.”

Why all the negativity? From my experience, there are three common types of mistakes made in planning and running teambuilding events that make people love to hate them.

Mistake #1 – Failing to define clear and relevant goals

The purpose of teambuilding activities is to improve team performance. This is equally true for a 20-minute activity in the office as it is for a two-day offsite. So, linking your goals to elements of high performance teams (HPTs) helps you focus on what matters. Well-written goals also help you build buy-in for the time you are asking others to invest. And while there is no shortage of opinions about what makes a HPT, my colleagues and I believe HPTs have strengths in three elements:

  • Direction: This means the team has a clear vision and goals. And, there is shared vision and values between the team and the team members.
  • Process: This means the team has clear roles for each team member, clear processes (making decisions and sharing information, for instance) and an ongoing, creative exchange of ideas that lets the team quickly adapt their processes to change or special circumstances.
  • People: This means the team has the right mix of talents and abilities, and the team members have productive relationships grounded by mutual trust.

Effective teambuilding goals might range from creating a team vision or strategy (Direction) to resolving a non-constructive team conflict or fostering a stronger sense of team unity (People) or helping a team move from conflict to consensus to make a business decision or fix a part of the business that is not working well (Process). For each goal you set, it’s useful to also define what the deliverables will be. This keeps the team focused and engaged on what they need to achieve together during the teambuilding session.

Mistake #2 – Using inappropriate or ineffective teambuilding activities

At the risk of stating the obvious, choosing teambuilding activities that have clear, logical links to your goals helps your chance of success. I’ve seen a few cases where a team leader or sponsor pushes for using a favorite activity or format that work well for the leader in a previous company or with a different team. Even if, for example, you fell in love with Tom Wucek’s Marshmallow Challenge (and really, who hasn’t?), it probably won’t help you address your team’s trust issue – that is, unless you can find a way to tailor the activity rules, process or debrief to help people discover and act on real-world ways to improve trust on the team. This brings me to the third common mistake.

Mistake #3 – Failing to consider if and how to tailor the activities to the team members and their needs

Context matters. Even the right teambuilding activity runs the risk of flopping unless it’s run in a way that makes sense for who’s in the room and what the interpersonal between team members.

Factors such as team or country culture, language ability, level of trust and rapport between team members, cliques within a team, seniority and personal styles and team dynamics can affect the outcome of your teambuilding activities.

For example, if the success of an activity depends on the degree to which people honestly share opinions, feedback or personal stories, it’s critical to consider whether the people in the room trust each other enough to voluntarily disclose their honest thoughts and feelings. If not, have a plan for creating a safe environment during the meeting (assuming this is a realistic to do). This doesn’t have to be difficult or time-consuming. For some teams, it might be as simple as having someone the team members respect model “straight talk” or self-disclosure first so others can gauge what’s appropriate, or expected, for people to share.

When done well, teambuilding can be an effective way to contribute to the success of most any team that wants to achieve high performance.