A Critical Team Building Mistake to Avoid At All Costs

by  David Dye  |  Leadership Development
A Critical Team Building Mistake to Avoid At All Costs

Please don’t do this. Last week I spoke with a company executive who said, “People are upset, can you help us with some team-building?”

I replied, “Probably not.”

He looked at me with a combination of shock and amusement – he wasn’t used to trainers or consultants telling him they didn’t want his money.

“Okay, tell me why you won’t help us?”

It’s not that I wasn’t willing to help – of course I would. But if your people are upset, team-building isn’t the solution.

Start Here

As with any problem solving, the first step is to get the facts and identify the real problem. When people are upset, that’s generally a symptom of a problem, not the problem itself.

When I asked the executive why his people were upset, he wasn’t entirely sure. “They seem frustrated.”

As we dug deeper, we discovered that there were significant breakdowns in communicating big changes along with one midlevel manager who had started acting territorial and was needlessly frustrating other departments.

Fix The Real Problem

You can’t team-build your way out of fundamental problems. Fix the problem.

For this executive, that meant apologizing for the communication problems, getting the right information out to everyone, listening to and addressing the concerns his people had about the new process, and then taking aside the territorial manager for some one-on-one coaching and accountability.

Don’t team build in response to problems or low morale. Fix the communication problems. Improve the process issue that prevents people from doing their job.

Icing on the Cake

Team-building is often loathed and panned by employees and managers alike because it’s a waste of time – a well-intentioned, but completely ineffectual response to a problem that takes real work to solve.

Done properly, real team-building is the icing on the cake. Imagine trying to spread frosting on a cake that is only half-cooked. You’d a have a nasty, goopy mess that ends up in the trash. You can’t frost a half-baked cake and you can’t use motivation or relationship-building in place of fundamentals.

Don’t try to motivate your way out of a mess. Fix the mess. That’s real leadership.

How can you ensure healthy fundamentals before you use team-building and motivation activities?
Photo Credit: Creative Commons: Vegan Baking

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Articles By david-dye
I work with leaders who want to build teams that care and get more done with fewer headaches.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

John E. Smith  |  20 Jul 2015  |  Reply

Hi, David – thanks for an entertaining and all too real-life post.

You have nicely highlighted a very real and very common problem within organizations: Trying to fix the wrong problem with the wrong tools.

Thinking of team building as the “icing on the cake”, rather than as the big fix, is a valuable way to shift our perceptions about this important, but not primary developmental task.


David Dye  |  21 Jul 2015  |  Reply

Thanks John – so much dysfunction occurs from ‘wrong problem – wrong tool.’

Duncan M.  |  21 Jul 2015  |  Reply

Changes, if they are not approached correctly, can bring a lot of discomfort in an organization. This is why it is extremely important to assure proper internal communication and not rely on distractions hoping that the situation will get fixed by itself. It is mandatory to tell the employees what they need to know. It is true that there are various HR tools that can be used to improve engagement, built effective teams, etc. At the same time, it is a fact that they need to be used when the situation requires and not randomly.

David Dye  |  21 Jul 2015  |  Reply

Duncan, what you say about change is certainly true. As John said – right tool, right time.

Thanks for your observation,


Beth Minton  |  21 Jul 2015  |  Reply

I wish every leader would read this article and take your sound advice. Taking it a step further, even when there isn’t an obvious problem, a team will always have needs that have to be taken into account in the design of a team-building event, or it will miss the mark. In a high-functioning team, they might be relatively easy to address (e.g., update on an initiative or agreement on email protocol).

Even the most perceptive leaders often don’t have the full picture, which is why a discovery process is critical. Interviews with team members (or at the very least, a survey) will surface and prioritize the needs, leading to objectives that are on target and an agenda that clears the way so the team can focus on cohesion and collaboration.

David Dye  |  22 Jul 2015  |  Reply

Thanks Beth – I’m glad it was helpful. You’re so right – start with gathering information. Always. No one ever starts with the entire picture :)

Take care,


Dan Poe  |  22 Jul 2015  |  Reply

Thank you for the insightful post.
I believe you touched on a frequent problem in many organizations – executive/managers who unwilling or unable to LEAD. Often team building is preferred because it allows the executive/manager to avoid the pain of making tough decisions. The team becomes the focus of any ill will or scrutiny from those affected by the changes. Leadership is often a lonely and thankless position in the short term but with great potential in the long term.

David Dye  |  22 Jul 2015  |  Reply

Hi Dan,

Well said. Real influence begins with personal responsibility.

Thanks for the contribution!


Jerry Flach  |  24 Jul 2015  |  Reply

Follow project management best practices especially with respect to planning e.g. include the people responsible for the work in the planning/meetings/discussions. Project decisions made in the corner office with a couple of people are decisions made in a vacuum and often lead to unrealistic goals and reduced morale. In the end this is really another communications problem!

David Dye  |  28 Jul 2015  |  Reply

Well said Jerry!

John  |  27 Jul 2015  |  Reply

Great post here David,

It’s a very interesting take on team building , I think companies make too many stereotypical mistakes, when it comes to deciding on a particular team building theme.

David Dye  |  30 Jul 2015  |  Reply

Thanks John

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