Team Building

Why Team Building Doesn’t Work and What to do Instead

Max 8 min read

Why Team Building Doesn’t Work and What to do Instead
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Why Team Building Doesn’t Work and What to do Instead

Now more than ever, leaders are struggling to find ways for their teams to connect in an increasingly digital environment. Even before the great digital shift of 2020 (thanks COVID) management hustled to find ways to engage their team in ways that built trust and camaraderie.

If you have ever been on the receiving end of a team-building exercise, you know that they can be awkward, uncomfortable, and even just plain boring.

But the higher-ups keep trying… looking for the silver bullet escape room or board game that will bring the team together.

The truth? Team building, as we know, it doesn’t work.

It’s Not a Team Problem, It’s a Leadership Problem

It’s Not a Team Problem, It’s a Leadership Problem

That is right, leaders are trying so hard to fix a team and are blind (or willfully ignorant) to the fact that they are the source problem. Trust falls won’t save your team and putting the onus on them to fix a leadership issue is ineffective at best, and insulting at worst.

It is important that leadership takes initiative and owns up to their shortcomings because the solution comes from the top. That said, the shortcomings are not always obvious and may require some introspection to get to the root of it all. If you are a leader and you notice that your team isn’t quite connecting as you hope and your instinct is to book a motivational speaker…

Pause. Take a deep breath. Take a look in the mirror and see if you have any of the following warning signs:

Unnecessary Red Tape

Rules and processes are in place for a reason and most of them make sense but I guarantee that there is some kind of process or system that is getting in the way of your team doing their best work. Take the time to survey or meet with the team to find efficiencies, maybe you don’t need to print forms on blue paper that requires changing the settings on the printer every single time or maybe meetings could be held at the end of the week instead of the beginning. The act of soliciting feedback itself will help build trust by saying that you value their perspective and recognize that they may have solutions to the issues that they face on a daily basis that you may not see.

Unwritten Unwritten Rules

Every organization has their own set of unwritten rules:

  • No fish in the breakroom microwave… no exceptions
  • Any desserts brought into the office must be in a sharable quantity
  • Always make a fresh pot of coffee if you finish the last one
  • Don’t wear pink on Wednesday

Whatever the unwritten rules are, either write them down or ensure that there is a way to communicate them with new people on the team. Imagine trying to integrate into a team and being expected to know the work culture norms without having any exposure to them? This not only causes stress but diminishes trust between team members and leadership.

Excessive Meetings

Nothing erodes trust quite like being inconsiderate of other people’s time. As a leader, consider the amount of time that you interrupt your team, whether that be with emails, requests, phone calls, or meetings. Step back and reevaluate how you check in with your team, find a way to make it as considerate as possible. Trust goes both ways and ensuring that you respect the time and attention of your team will go a long way to building trust.

Unreasonable Expectations

Leaders delegate work, that is a big part of the job, but are you reasonable with your ask? Are you expecting too much of your team? Check-in with them and ensure that their workload is reasonable. If your team is not in a place where you feel they are giving honest answers for fear of repercussions, do your own experiment and reduce the workload and observe the effect that may have on morale and quality. Results may vary and you may find that shifting the load even a little bit will make a big difference.

Lack of Positive Reinforcement and Feedback

No, you don’t need to hand out participation trophies but a little praise and recognition go a long way to building trust but also confidence. A person who feels genuinely appreciated will be more inclined and able to produce good work knowing it won’t go unnoticed. Taking the time to recognize someone for their work, whether that be verbal, a written note, or even a quick email goes a long way and is a great way to build up your team but also practice great leadership.

How to do REAL Team Building Every Day

How to do REAL Team Building Every Day

Team building as we know it is generally ineffective, so how can we embrace new ways that actually work to build a team based on trust?

Clear is Kind

Thank you Dr. Brene Brown for these words of wisdom – Clear is Kind. Don’t leave your team guessing, be clear with goals, expectations, and strategy. Not only will this reduce confusion, but being clear and straightforward is kind because you are reducing any guesswork and respecting the time and energy of your team. Be clear in all aspects of your work whether that is communicating expectations or providing feedback, your team with thank you but also trust that you will continue this practice in the future.

Have Fun!

Not every activity has to tie back to work or work-related skill-building. Create opportunities for more authentic connections that involve fun activities that people actually want to participate in. Sure, there can be some aspects of work skill development but that tends to come naturally when your team can simply have fun together and get to know each other. Rent some cabins, go on a hike, race some go-carts, but be sure to take suggestions! Try alternating between activities that individuals on your team like to do. Not only do you get to know them better as a person, but they can share something they are passionate about with the people with who they spend most of their weekdays.

Read the Room

Leaders need to take responsibility and know their team members better than they know each other. Take a moment to read the room, note who most involves themselves with certain aspects of the project, recognize their strengths and weaknesses and offer them developmental opportunities that speak to them. Also, note what type of activities gather the most participation and those that tend to speak to more introverted members of your team. Respect that there will be a variety of personalities and preferences so don’t waste time finding a one size fits all activity, embrace diversity!

Be Consistent

True team building is not a one-and-done activity, it is a consistent and reliable part of a team member’s schedule. Whether activities are once a week or once a month, ensure that there is a predictable schedule that the team can expect fun opportunities to get to know one another.

Make it Voluntary

There is nothing worse than being forced to attend a team-building exercise that you are just not feeling. Leaders need to respect the boundaries of their team but also understand that they may have a lot on their plate. Maybe they are in the middle of a big project, have a family commitment, or just need a break. Making activities voluntary gives a choice but also means that you have to work harder to create an activity that people want to attend. Having a great turnout at an event where attendance is voluntary is validating that you are on the right track.

How to Know that Team Building is Working

How to Know that Team Building is Working

So if you don’t have an activity with some kind of post-event survey to collect feedback, how will you know if your efforts are working? You can simply ask the team for feedback or you can observe the indirect ways that your team will tell you that your efforts are paying off.

Reduced Stress

If you are still working in person, you can almost see stress hovering in the air. If you are more distant, stress may look like trouble meeting deadlines, inconsistent email responses, or even frequent sick days. As obvious as stress can be, the lack of stress can be just as visible. A more relaxed team is meeting deadlines, sharing new ideas, and showing up when they are needed. Productivity will increase and people will be happier when the weight of unnecessary stress is lifted.

Improved Communication

Whether this is watercooler chat, informal lunch meetings, or an active digital chat stream, a good team has learned how to effectively communicate both personally and professionally. You will know that you have successfully built a team when communication comes naturally. You will notice once quiet team members speak up in meetings when they have suggestions or need clarification, this is a sure sign of trust because it was the uncertainly of others’ reactions that kept them quiet in the first place.

Clear and Respected Boundaries

Often, teams tolerate a certain level of disruption and discomfort because they fear that setting boundaries will out them as not willing to be part of the team… the opposite is true! A team built on trust will recognize the need to communicate and set reasonable boundaries that will allow them to work most effectively – better serving the team. Not only are they comfortable setting boundaries but they also respect the boundaries of their team.

Supportive and Encouraging Environment

This one is obvious – high fives (elbows?) in the halls, shoutouts on the message board, and even personal notes of encouragement are just some of the ways that your team may show their support to each other. It is important that leadership foster an environment where the team feels supported, valued, and is recognized for their contribution to the organization.

Creativity Thrives

A team built on trust provides the foundation for people to feel confident in taking initiative and sharing creative ideas when they would have otherwise kept them safely inside their head… where no one can criticize. Nothing fosters a creative environment like a team that trusts each other, making it easy to offer suggestions that may be outside of the box. Innovation happens in environments where creativity is encouraged and everyone feels comfortable enough to share their true thoughts and ideas.


The old way of team building is dead but there are still many ways to build up your team that actually work. If you are looking for some inspiration on quality in-person and virtual team building, check out Team Building Activities for Your Business: How to Strengthen Team Bonding with Activities That Create Connection and 10 Virtual Team Building Activities Your Employees Will Actually Want To Do for quality ideas your team will want to participate in.

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