When I was head of the Corporate University in Kazakhstan, one of our ‘best sellers’ was Teambuilding. And my people were pretty damn good at it. Which I guess is the reason that we had so many companies as clients and return as clients.

I have always had mixed feelings about teambuilding events though. And still have.

In Kazakhstan I regarded them as slightly old-fashioned, Western sessions, where you do something physical and mildly dangerous with your ‘team’ in the great outdoors. Indeed the range of offerings includes climbing a mountain to building a yurt, the Kazakh nomad tent. I described one such (very successful) session we ran once as ‘a cross between children’s party games and entertainment at holiday camps or all-in resorts, in a slightly non-‘Western politically correct’ culture’. But where everyone enjoys it and nobody takes offence. Even on a Saturday, which is when they often are held there.

Of course I realize that such outdoor survival activities have never stopped and are even back in vogue in the West and further afield. And I know all of the business reasons for doing them. At least according to the trainers and companies who provide them.

Build connections between your employees. Get to know people better outside the workplace. Improve communication. Have ‘fun’ together. Maybe even learn a new skill. With the expectation that everyone returns back to work in a more positive mood, with increased co-operation & collaboration because of the increased communication and camaraderie. Maybe even with problem solving skills enhanced. Morale is good, employee engagement goes up, retention is improved, and business results get better.

I know all of this and yes, as a boss, I have also organized such teambuilding events. But did I really do it with the expectation it would ‘build a team’ or ‘improve communication’?

I give an example. We did a very important event in Kazakhstan for the two Transformation teams in the largest semi-Governmental organisation. The fact that there were two of these teams not one, the first running the internal transformation of maybe 200 people and the other advising all the other companies (many thousands of people) how to transform, and both using different methodologies and ideas, both being headed by expats who both reported to the same CEO, should already raise worries and ring alarm bells. Especially as the idea of the teambuilding was to improve communication between the two teams (and within the two teams). They wished to do this via a game so we ran a business game for them. People had some fun. And of course eating, drinking and dancing was also an important part of the event.

So they wanted to work on communication and building a team as a whole. And thought that getting someone else to run an event for them, and play a game (while the bosses apparently watched) was going to help.

I don’t want to be too negative because I am sure it did help them, the feedback to us was great, and they apparently hadn’t done anything else to improve communication or create a team. Which is exactly my point.

So much of the offsite ‘teambuilding’ I have seen throughout my career, and my view of the teambuilding industry itself, making people do slightly silly things together, is because the leaders of those ‘teams’ often won’t, or can’t, take the responsibility themselves for the communication, co-operation, ways of working, values and indeed culture, of their team.

Because the real reason for holding the ‘teambuilding’ I often think, is because the leader isn’t doing his or her job properly. And the real root cause of the problems in the ‘team’ will be anything from no conflict resolution, no difficult conversations, no clear expectations, unclear strategy, role confusion, all the way to no communication or conversations with the leader, no information or no feedback. And one teambuilding event may be useful to tick the ‘to do’ list, but won’t solve the real issue that the leader should be addressing. And is getting paid for.

Even apart from the fact that when you are in a company promoting health & safety at work, some of these survival-type ‘teambuildings’ cause me cognitive dissonance!

So do I think there is a place for ‘teambuilding’ at all? Yes, as an excuse to go out for the day with your organization, a sort of reward rather than working, to either do something useful for the community (as I did in Russia) or just to have fun (the majority of time). That’s what I have organized.

Providing you are already doing the right things as a leader it will strengthen what you have already built. Just don’t assume it will solve any problems you have in your team that you haven’t had the guts to address, that’s all.

I have to finish with another Kazakh teambuilding story. One that my team did not share with me beforehand, as I may have stopped them. Leadership is fairly hierarchical here. The boss knows everything and people wait to be told. And the CEO of the company involved wanted to get his team working together without him. So they are all in the coach, supposedly on the way to the offsite teambuilding, when it gets stopped on the street and ambushed by masked and apparently armed men and the CEO is kidnapped. (In reality by some of the kids who worked for me), The CEO and driver knew what was going to happen but his team didn’t. And they spent the rest of the day working together without him to get him back for a reunion dinner that evening. A successful start to a different working relationship I am told. But not a ‘teambuilding’ I would recommend in other countries!

1 Comment

  1. 97Ilene

    I must say you have high quality content here. Your blog
    should go viral.


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