12 Reasons Why Team Building Fails And How To Prevent It 


What is Team Building?

Team building is a set of activities conducted to bring a team together. Ideally, they should help the team realize the value of teamwork and maintain a healthy relationship between them. 

12 Reasons Why Team Building Fails And How To Prevent It 

Unfortunately, team building often fails, mainly because most companies only apply it when teams are already going through critical internal issues. The reasons why team building fails include (in no particular order):

1. Lack of A Clear Purpose 

Team building without a set purpose or a fixed end goal makes little sense, as a lot of effort is put into it from the team members, and no one likes to see their efforts wasted. From another perspective, it’s ineffective to invest in team-building without having a clear idea of what the collective needs to achieve to validate their experience. 

The best way to overcome this issue is by analyzing what improvements your team can benefit from for the company’s sake and setting those as the team’s goal in team building. 

You can conduct internal surveys to hear from the team members what they think needs to change. However, anonymous surveys are more effective as it makes everyone more comfortable to express their genuine opinions. 

2. The Wrong Purpose 

Sometimes team building fails not for lack of purpose but because the end goal doesn’t relate to the team to effectively solve the team’s issues. Therefore, just having a goal isn’t enough. 

Suppose, for instance, the team’s performance is being affected by a particular individual’s behavior, for example, or poor communication between two team members. In that case, managers should spare the rest of the team from getting involved by approaching them privately. 

 Check my article on Ways To Manage Difficult Team Members. 

3. Failing to Address The Actual Issue 

The problem with team building is that companies often don’t have a clear idea of what exercises to choose to solve the actual issue the team is dealing with. 

There’s no point in doing an exercise focused on teamwork and cooperation if the team’s issue is communication. 

For that reason, looking into the situation, discovering and addressing the real issue is essential for all team-building efforts’ worth. 

4. Having a Social Approach to It

We’ve all heard of companies who organize activities like Paintball, Go Karting, or Obstacle Courses for their teams as part of team-building. Although fun, many of those activities are more focused on the social aspect of team dynamics and not on factors that directly impact them workwise. 

Don’t get me wrong, activities that promote interactions are essential for a team, yet those shouldn’t be confused for team building. 

Effective team-building focuses on activities that build skills within the team that can later be applied in their workplace. 

Kenneth Stalsett, the writer of a doctoral thesis on team development, suggests focusing team-building on developing skills needed in the everyday workplace.  

5. Having an Overtly Competitive Approach 

Competition has stood out in my research as definitely NOT the right approach to team-building. 

There’s a lot of pressure that comes with it, and the focus is immediately turned from reaching the common team goal to standing out as an individual. That may cause conflict between team members. 

Unfortunately, many leaders still rely on competitive activities for team building. They don’t realize that those rarely bring teams together, with some exceptions when competition isn’t focused on winning. In the latter cases, everyone is awarded for their particular role in the activity, whether they lead or support the leader. 

6. Overlooking Team Members and Their Preferences 

When planning team-building activities, keep in mind the types of individuals that compose the team. Even though aiming for an activity that will please everyone is unrealistic, aiming for inclusive activities is a great way to contour this aspect. 

If, for instance, your team is composed of members of all ages, you might want to do activities that apply to all ages and team members without making them uncomfortable. 

7. Not Respecting People’s Boundaries 

Companies often choose team-building activities that are daring and push people out of their comfort zone. That is amazing and even necessary, yet it should be applied cautiously to avoid the negative extreme of the factor: overlooking people’s boundaries. 

According to research, psychological safety is a crucial factor in the work environment. If your team members feel like their personal boundaries aren’t respected, that can create a feeling of unsafety. 

The best way to avoid this is to allow your team members to have free will and the option to retreat from the activity if they feel overwhelmed. 

8. Demanded Cooperation 

Team building, especially when focused on the social aspect, shouldn’t be forced on people. It should be suggested and presented to all team members, with a clear explanation of its purpose, yet it shouldn’t be mandatory, as that in itself deflects the purpose. 

People rarely engage from a place of openness when that engagement seems like an obligation or something mandatory.

 Although most of your team members will probably engage even if they don’t want to, probably out of fear of risking their job and reputation in the manager’s eyes, it’s always good to put it out there that they can choose otherwise. 

9. Focusing in The Past 

Analyzing what has been happening up until the point a team comes together in team-building is necessary, but it shouldn’t be the sole focus of team building. 

Teams will more likely benefit from a more future-oriented approach, where they try to find answers to questions about what should and needs to be done for the team to get to where they want to get, rather than get away from where they currently are. 

10. Poor Communication Within The Team 

Many companies apply team building to try and get the team together, yet they overlook other internal problems, such as communication issues or even cooperation and accountability issues. 

Logically, activities like obstacle courses and even escape rooms, no matter how effective they are, won’t solve the team’s communication issues if those are deep and ingrained in the team’s structure. On the contrary, these exercises might even highlight or further escalate these issues. 

For that reason, team building, if not focused on communication, should be done after good communication has been established in the office as the “policy.” That way, it has more chances of working out. 

11. Poor Leadership 

Throughout my research, the role of the leader in team building has been highly emphasized. In a study about students’ attitudes towards different team-building methods, conducted to understand the role of team building and teamwork in the work environment, one of the conclusions was the importance of the instructor, for the students, in solving problematic situations, as the superior. 

Leaders have the responsibility of looking after the team and guiding them towards excellence. When a team doesn’t have a capable leader, the chances of exhaling in team-building activities and teamwork, in general, are slim. 

Read my article on The 23 Most Difficult Parts of Being a Team Leader and how to contour them and become the best leader you can be. 

Bonus: 

12. Not Taking Team Building Back to The Workplace 

One of the big mistakes behind team building’s failure is not taking what was learned to the workplace. Since all the team-building activities ideally help build a strong foundation for the team, taking all the lessons learned and applying them to the workplace is the only way to solidify that foundation. 

Kenneth Stalsett, the writer of a doctoral thesis on team development, suggests focusing team-building on developing skills needed in the everyday workplace.  

A great way to guarantee that as a team leader is to check in with your teammates at least one week after a team-building activity to see if they have internalized the lessons and what they took from the experience. 

What To Do When Team Building Fails 

Like we have seen, team building mostly fails when conducted wrongly. The best thing to do, when it fails, is to reassess it and see in what ways your team-building experience could’ve been improved, to make the changes necessary. 

Here are some practical tips on what to do: 

  1. Learn From Failure

Every person who has found success in any venture will tell you how much of a great teacher failure is. So allow yourself to learn from it and take your loss as a big lesson on what not to do to reach your desired outcome in team building. 

Observe what you’ve done and search for what you’ve done wrong.

  1. Learn From Your Team

No one can give you a better insight into your team’s team-building experience but themselves. For that reason, you should consider listening to them and learning from their insight. 

You can do that by conducting anonymous surveys to understand your team’s insight on their last team-building exercise and collect their suggestions on how you could’ve made it better. 

  1. Consider Other Options 

Like I’ve said before, team building isn’t always the most appropriate solution to all of your team’s issues. Some issues require a different approach. Considering other options will give you the freedom to explore new dynamics that might end up benefiting your team more than team-building did. 

Other options may include a team meeting where you, as the leader, and all the team members discuss the team’s issues or a private meeting with the team members that seem to be doing wrong. 

It’s important to remark that team building’s popularity so far, until the time it started to prove itself ineffective, isn’t unjustified. On the contrary, just like it has many negative aspects, it has some advantages too. 

Advantages of Team Building 

Some of the advantages of team-building practices, when done correctly, include: 

  • Highlighting the team’s strengths and weaknesses;
  • Highlighting the manager’s strengths and weaknesses; 
  • Improving communication between team members;
  • Helping team members with internalizing the company’s culture and policy; 
  • Assisting skills development;
  • Improving relationships between team members (and between them and their leader); 
  • Introducing change in the company and the team. 

Team Building Do’s and Don’ts 

Reasons Why Team Building FailHow to Make Team Building Work?What to Avoid Team Building from Failing?
Lack of a Clear Purpose Set a goal and define a purpose for team building based on your team’s problems. Go aimlessly into team-building activities. 
Having the Wrong Purpose Evaluate if your purpose can best be achieved through team-building exercises.Define as your team building purpose something that can’t be achieved through it. Example: correcting the behavior of a difficult team member. 
Failing To Address The Actual IssueChoose the right exercise to develop the skill you expect your team members to develop in response to the issue. Choose random exercises and activities. 
Having a Social Approach To It Focus on activities that build skills that can and will later be applied in the workplace.Focus on activities that are fun but don’t bring any relevant skills development.
Having an Overtly Competitive Approach To It Avoid competitive activities and, in the case of competition, reward both winners and people who have helped them. Organize competitive activities that might turn team member’s against each other. Don’t focus too much on winners and losers dynamics. 
Overlooking Team Members and Their Preferences Consider your team member’s ages and physical condition, as well as their preferences, before choosing team-building activities. Ignore your team members’ preferences and conditions when electing the team-building exercises. 
Overlooking People’s BoundariesPlan activities that take your team members out of their comfort zones without crossing their boundaries. Carelessly plan activities that disregard your team member’s boundaries or put them in extreme discomfort. 
Demanded CooperationGive your team members space and freedom to participate voluntarily. Force your team members to engage. 
Focusing on The Past Have a future-oriented approach and focus on what needs to be done to get the team to where you want it. Focus too much on the past and on what went wrong and therefore needs to change. 
Poor Communication Within The Team Make sure communication is already being exercised in your company before throwing your team into an activity that demands it. Wait until a team-building event to teach your team members the importance of good communication. 
Poor LeadershipTake responsibility for your team as their leader. Leave your team to wander. 
Not Taking Team Building Back To The WorkplaceMake sure that your team has internalized the learnings from team building and motivate them to apply them in the workplace. Forget to check in with your team after team building to see how it has transformed them. 

Even with all the challenges that a good team-building experience brings to most companies, team building isn’t at all bad. What companies need to learn is how to do it correctly, in a way that will bring the desired result. Hopefully, this article has helped you with that! 

Further Readings

Reasons Why Team Building Fails. ALEXGOZDEK 

Why Team-building Exercises Are Useless (And What You Should Do Instead). FASTCOMPANY  

Emidio Amadebai

For the past 2 years, I have been working as the head of Customer Experience, Sales, Marketing, and Customer Finance at an international pay as you go solar home system company working in rural areas in Africa. After my previous 7 years working in B2B, IT&Telecoms industry, as a Service Delivery and Project Manager, having worked with Vodacom, Huawei, and other multinational companies. My job is to make sure we improve the lives of thousands of families, with access to electricity, utilities (radio, TV, lights), doing our very best so that they get the best-in-class customer experience, and succeed in acquiring the products for themselves.

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