Remember your last office ‘away day’ and all the fun team building exercises you took part in? Perhaps you built a raft and tried to stay afloat. Or maybe someone led you around while you wore a blindfold. Or were you really brave and jumped from a height into your colleagues’ open arms? Team building exercises are supposed to evoke trust, camaraderie and fun. While they will almost certainly deliver on the last part – and collectively letting off steam is important – do they really build stronger teams?

We’re big fans of Alison Green (aka Ask a Manager) at Team HardTalk and even more so after reading her recent piece on team building for the BBC:

“I heard from one reader who worked on a team of people who were having trouble getting along, so her manager organised a team-building event where everyone present had to share what they didn’t like about each other.

Unsurprisingly, tears ensued. She noted that, contrary to the purpose of the event, she and her colleagues went from not being able to work together well to actively disliking each other in about 30 minutes.

Another reader wrote in about a team-building event that her office held on a horse farm. One horse got over-excited and nearly trampled one of her colleagues. “It was a bonding experience to a certain extent,” she wrote, “but only because we all thought we were going to die.”

Another reader described a team-building exercise where she and her co-workers had to spit soda into each other’s mouths – why, I don’t know – and another was made to watch videos about the leadership skills of dolphins.”

Perhaps these are extreme examples, but they are indicative of the wider problem with team building in that they are failing to achieve what they set out to do. Why is that?

In HardTalk, we explore the two different types of trust we need in the workplace or in fact anywhere where we want to successfully deal with other people:

Common trust  – The confidence/belief that a co-worker or team member won’t break generally accepted laws, norms, policies, etc. If I leave my phone in a meeting room, it’s the trust that no one will steal it.

Vulnerability-based trust – The belief that you can do things like take risks, ask for help, admit mistakes, or confront and hold others accountable without fear of retaliation, humiliation, or resentment.

For the most part, common trust is exactly that and we’d like to hope it’s a default setting in most organisations. We believe that vulnerability-based trust is what really contributes to a strong workplace culture – one that is built on constant candour and communication.

The problem with a one-off team building exercise is that we may feel energised and happy after we’ve completed it. We may even feel a bit friendlier towards our colleagues – unless we’re talking about the examples shared by Alison… But what happens when those feelings inevitably wear off after a few days/weeks back in the office? Things return to the status quo. Building trust shouldn’t hinge on an annual day out. Trust should be built on every day, at every level of the business, if we want to see real behavioural and organisational change.

We know that the most successful companies are those who encourage and respond to constant candour. Sometimes this may mean experiencing confrontation or conflict, or dealing with the fallout from a mistake – things which leave our co-workers and us in a more vulnerable state and will most certainly involve HardTalk. But HardTalk becomes a lot easier when it takes place in an environment where people are empowered to hear and be heard. It takes hard work and practise.

If you want to learn to swim you take lessons. If you want to improve your golf swing, you hire a coach. If you want to work better as a team, you need to learn to work together as a team. There is no magic wand.

We think Alison sums it up quite nicely:

“In other words, what builds strong teams is… good management, day after day after day. That may not be as entertaining as dance performances or rope courses, but it’s what works.”


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