Teambuilding Exercises Can Miss the Mark

A couple weeks ago, I saw photos of a teambuilding activity that gave me pause. A doctor’s office in Georgia took its employees to an arts and crafts store, where they each created a personalized crucifix. As a Jewish person, I wondered what I would do in that situation. Would I speak up and ask to create a non-religious symbol (or a Star of David if I were religious)? Or would I just go along with the activity and give my crucifix to a Christian friend?

If you have what you assume to be a homogenous small business, are these kinds of teambuilding activities OK? Or do they “cross” the line into subtle harassment, as an employer never really knows about the personal religious practices of its employees, even if the assumption is that everyone is on the same page?

Similarly, I wonder at teambuilding activities that are nothing more than Happy Hours once a month at a local bar. Most people who are teetotalers probably would be content to nurse a sparkling water, soda, or juice, but some may be offended at the setting, or find that it violates their personal beliefs.

Or how about the scenario of the couch potato contingent of an otherwise athletic workforce forced to participate in a physically rigorous activity, such as one of those relay races that involve sliding through mud? You probably can tell I would be a member of the horrified couch potato contingent on that outing.

The possibilities are great for making a mild faux pas, or a serious mistake, in the teambuilding activity you choose. What happens if your teambuilding activity involves boating, and more than a few of your employees can’t swim or are terrified of being on the open water?

I was so curious about the recommendations for teambuilding exercises that I Googled it, and found: “Corporate Team-Building Activities: The Good, the Bad and the Really Ugly,” an article by Jada A. Graves, published in U.S. News & World Report last year.

It’s not clear from this article what’s definitely OK, and what’s not, when organizing teambuilding activities. The most important points seem to be not to endanger anyone’s life or well-being, and to tie the activity to a core lesson or principle that is important to the employees’ jobs. “…Generally teambuilding shouldn’t stimulate violence, cause harm or humiliate participants…What’s important is that employees recognize the parallel between the activity and the workplace, and that they’re appropriately challenged.”

To me, that sounds vague. I still get a sense that the only way to define an inappropriate teambuilding activity is to say, “I know it when I see it.”

What have been some of your company’s best teambuilding activities? Why were they both fun and effective?

Here are some that would appeal to me, including potential rewards and pitfalls of each:

Day taking care of, or socializing, animals at a local animal shelter. The reward is the joy of caring for, and playing with, adorable animals that need help. An additional reward is tying the patience and love required to take care of animals to the care a compassionate company would hope employees would show one another, customers, and the community it serves. The pitfall is some people are allergic to and/or scared of animals—or just plain don’t like them (unfathomable to me, but these people actually exist).

Beach clean up. The reward is getting to spend a day outside on a gorgeous day in July or August (having a rain date handy), and the satisfaction of doing something positive for your community, keeping a shared resource in good shape for everyone to enjoy. The pitfall is that those with physical disabilities or infirmities can’t participate easily. And, of course, being around water, I suppose someone who can’t swim could drown while chasing an errant soda can into the surf.

Improvisation activities. The famous theater Second City, which I’ve mentioned in this blog at least a couple times in the past, is an example of a local theater group that has a corporate learning division. That division can organize activities in which participants must improvise based on their co-workers’ contributions. The goal is to say only “yes/and” versus “no, but.” The reward is the lesson of how to be positive, and build on what co-workers have contributed, rather than turning reflexively toward disagreement. The pitfall is some people, who are naturally more creative, will excel easily at this task, and others, who may have good intentions, and are not really negative people, might falter just because they aren’t good at improvisation.

Cooking class. A cooking class, in which employees first are given a demonstration, supplied with the ingredients and implements, and then must work together to create a meal, can be fun and instructive. Employees are forced to collaborate in a concrete way in a short amount of time, bringing to light challenging areas that show up in the employees’ work together at the office. On the other hand, a potential pitfall could be food allergies and some people’s food restrictions based on religion or other personal beliefs. What if you’re cooking a meat-based dish, and vegetarians, or even vegans, are in attendance? Or people with a religious regimen around food, such as Kosher Jews? What about diabetics? Is it OK to bake a cake together, knowing not everyone can share in the cake feast?

Abstract painting class. Held at a local museum, a tour guide could educate the group on the ideas, concepts, and emotions behind the paintings, including metaphors maybe for the work the company does. And then the employees could try their hands at a painting of their own—abstract or otherwise—that expresses the corporate mission statement. The reward (at least to me) is the chance to refresh your brain with a creative exercise. The pitfall is not everyone finds art fun, and many struggle to understand it, and are not able to easily express themselves creatively—even if they understand the corporate mission when expressed in a more concrete way. It’s an activity that would be much more rewarding and easy for some employees than others.

As you can see, even the teambuilding activities that seem foolproof, and entirely inoffensive, can have unintended consequences and pitfalls.

Can you offer your peers any advice on putting together a fun and positive teambuilding activity?

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