Team Building Sometimes Isn't

The improving economy has prompted many companies to reinvest in their employees through team building activities. With the purse-strings less tight, leaders try to create a fun atmosphere and help team members bond with each other.

A recent Denver Post article discussed this trend. Getting people out of the structure and formality of the workplace can boost connections and increase communication. Yet some activities rely on competition, which often creates hard feelings.

One Denver firm operates an indoor kart racing facility that is very popular for company team building events. The feedback they get is 95% positive - yet there are periodic problems. One business owner let the competition go to his head and began ramming his employees' karts. "We had to remove him from the track," sighed the track owner.

There is no question that these activities can be fun and are certainly a change-of-pace from your day-to-day work environment. But are you getting tangible, work-related benefit from the time and investment?

The reality is that team building will not likely have beneficial impact on your day-to-day operations. Bowling, softball leagues, bicycling clubs, ropes courses, and even carting events may be enjoyable for some team members. But there is no guarantee that cheering on a colleague on the sports field will make that same team member more cooperative at work the next day.

How can companies create beneficial team building experiences that positively impact team members and their business? By engaging in cooperative team building activities - not competitive ones.

Here's an example. David Greer's upcoming book, Wind In Your Sails, mentions a powerful practice for creating authentic cooperative connections between team members - cooking together.

One of his first jobs was with a start-up that operated out of a house. A norm evolved that people volunteered to cook lunch for their twenty or so colleagues every workday. It was a terrific relationship-building experience - and you know that real work problems were getting solved over sandwiches daily.

David's story reminded me of how cooking together helped one of my teams. In my YMCA executive days, I created a similar experience for my day camp staff. We bused 30 team members to a rented cabin for a weekend of planning, training, and bonding. Dinner the second night was a team building experience.

We assigned people to four teams. Each eight member team had to plan their dinner meal within a $60 budget. That was real money back in the early 1980's. They had to plan who would take the lead on shopping, cooking, and cleaning. They had to cooperate with the other teams to share pots, pans, counter space, refrigerator shelves, ovens, etc. in our commercial kitchen.

We bused the teams to a local grocery store and gave them their cash. They had fifteen minutes to shop and get back on the bus. They then had 40-minutes to cook, 30-minutes to eat, and 30-minutes to clean the kitchen.

The experience was terrific. Everyone participated - and everyone enjoyed a nice meal. It was loud and fun. There were constant negotiations for needed pans and utensils and space as cooking began. People interacted deeply with everyone on their team - not just their best friends.

Afterwards, we spent an hour facilitating learning moments from the dinner experience - and let these leaders tell us how planning, cooperation, and sharing will make ours a high performing, values-aligned team.

The chaotic dinner event helped improve relationships, cooperation, and communication across our team that summer.

Remove the element of competition and build on the benefit of cooperation. Get out of the office and find ways of working together to make a positive impact on work relationships and practices.