Cynical about team-building days? You should be

There’s few words that can strike dread into an employee like “team” and “building”.

At best you might have a few laughs with your colleagues on the company’s dime. At worst you might end up psychologically traumatised, like some of the players on the Adelaide Crow’s now infamous training camp.

While experts agree there’s nothing wrong with rewarding employees with a night out at a karaoke bar or a day out of the office at a rock climbing gym, team-building days often don’t actually do what they say on the can.

“I don’t think team building does much to build a team,” says Your CEO Mentor founder Martin Moore. “Go and build a rocket ship out of paperclips? What’s the point of that?

“It can’t change the weight of all those things that happen day in and day out in a company. [Change] ain’t going to happen because you took people paint balling.”

Mr Moore, who hosts the No Bulls–t Leadership podcast, said too many business leaders expected a team-building exercise to be a quick and cheap fix for problems they’ve let fester.

Martin Moore, host of the No Bulls–t Leadership podcast, says most team building exercises are a waste of time.

“[Employees] are absolutely right to be cynical because I think the investment of time, money and risk to the individual doesn’t warrant the very, very rare and occasional benefit that can come from it. It’s just a time waster, from my perspective,” he says.

Even worse, poorly-considered team-building days that encourage people to disclose personal information could pose psychological risks for employees, particularly given there is no oversight as to who can call themselves as a facilitator.

“People feel compelled to share something so you get this peer pressure. And sharing those things is of very limited benefit anyway. There’s no lasting connection that gets formed from that. It’s more of an endurance test that people feel they have to go through,” Mr Moore says.

He says team building days are useful as a reward, or to get people out of the office and away from day-to-day distractions to tackle a specific issue “but outside of that I think they serve almost no purpose”.

Debra Panipucci, co-founder and director of Adaptive Change Management, says team-building exercises could be useful for newly formed teams as a quick way of forming connections, or for rewarding existing teams who might be burnt out and in need of fun.

Debra Panipucci and Leisa Hart of Adaptive Change Management.

But she said as change management experts, she and her colleagues would never recommend a standalone team-building exercise to solve a business issue.

“We bring people together as part of a program but it’s never meant to be a silver bullet that fixes everything, which is where some managers try and take it,” she says.

Her colleague, coaching expert Teresa Sassu, agrees.

“In some cases it’s just a day off for the team. Nothing really comes from it and it can actually be counterproductive if the team sees it as a bit of fluff,” she says.

Adaptive Change Management co-founder and director Leisa Hart says companies need to be clear about what they are trying to achieve with any team-building exercises.

“These things can go really well, they can be a moment where you’re drawing a line in the sand and hitting the reset button, but what happens after that? It’s the following up on that,” she says.

“If it’s well run people might actually significantly shift how they think, but that’s just the start. If they come back into the same system, you’re making it very hard for people.”