Collaboration complications: Here’s how to avoid common corporate team building pitfalls

Whether on the playing field or the office bullpen, putting together a truly effective and collaborative team is easier said than done. After all, dozens upon dozens of professional sports franchises spend tens of millions of dollars and myriad resources in pursuit of championship glory, but only one team earns the right to hoist up a trophy come the end of the playoffs. 

Similarly, in the less athletic yet equally competitive world of business, teamwork is also absolutely essential to an organization’s success. No business or company is going to last long if the accounting department can’t work together without bickering, for example. While asking every employee to be best friends with their coworkers is probably a stretch, managers and executives have long pondered how best to promote collaboration and unity in the workplace. 

Of course, if promoting flawless teamwork was easy, every sports team would have as many championships as the Yankees or Celtics. Countless organizations have attempted to instill a stronger sense of in-office community via various team building exercises like company-wide retreats or getaways, themed office parties, trust falls, egg drops, and scavenger hunts, just to name a few of the more common initiatives. 

Obligatory team building rarely produces team players

But, do these oftentimes heavy-handed approaches to team building actually work? A fascinating and relevant piece of research published in the scientific journal Social Networks just a few years ago indicates that in many cases the answer to that question is a resounding no. Study authors found that the intended benefits of such team building exercises fail to materialize for many employees when they feel forced to participate.1

Put another way, imagine being instructed you absolutely must have fun. Chances are, you aren’t going to have a very good time. True enjoyment unfolds organically, and trying to strongarm a positive experience frequently leads to negativity. This research suggests the same principle applies to team building. 

“Among the participants we interviewed, some were against team building exercises because they felt they were implicitly compulsory and did not welcome management’s interest in their lives beyond their direct work performance,” says Associate Professor Julien Pollack, Interim Director of the John Grill Institute of Project Leadership at the University of Sydney, in a press release.

“These activities often feel implicitly mandatory. People can feel that management is being too nosy or trying to control their life too much,” he adds.

Choice makes all the difference

All in all, the research team stresses the importance of individual choice when it comes to team building activities. Employees should be able to decline any activities they don’t want to engage in, and should never feel compelled to reveal personal details or values. Connecting with coworkers and forging stronger working relationships is still very much possible, but no one is going to truly open up and be themselves if team building exercises are framed as yet another mandatory daily duty.

“We recommend an approach where people can opt out of team building discreetly, by conducting team-building only among selected pairs of individuals who can choose whether or not to proceed with strengthening their relationship. Their choice would not be visible to management,” Professor Pollack explains. 

Leadership matters too

One of the biggest takeaways from the study detailed above is that employers and management need to listen to and collaborate with their employees as opposed to simply telling them what to do. In keeping with this theme, another piece of research published in the scientific journal Group & Organization Management stresses the importance of leadership while attempting to turn an office full of loners into team players.2

Scientists found that leaders and managers that prioritize on-the-job learning and encourage their workers to actively speak up, voice their opinions, and take more risks tend to build stronger, more resilient teams in the face of unexpected snafus and problems. Let’s face it, the boss sets the tone for the rest of the office, and a working environment characterized by open communication and learning is ideal for team building.

Another recent study published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior arrived at similar conclusions, finding open communication and reflection among teammates promotes improved wellbeing on both an individual and team level.3 

Certain people tend to prioritize their team’s wellbeing over themselves, while others disregard what’s good for the team in pursuit of individual interests. Neither of these paths is ideal. Researchers theorize the best way to avoid such lopsided team dynamics is by keeping the lines of communication open among team members so compromises and adjustments can be made in the name of both individual and group wellbeing.

1. Collecting experimental network data from interventions on critical links in workplace networks

2. A Resource Model of Team Resilience Capacity and Learning

3. The multilevel well-being paradox: Towards an integrative process theory of coping in teams