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Why Team-Building Rarely Works July 22, 2010

Posted by Kevin Burns in attitude, corporate culture, culture, kevin burns, keynote speaker, team-building.

Anne Thornley Brown wrote an interesting article on Why Companies Are Cutting Team-Building. In it, she offers these four reasons:

  • too much focus on activities of questionable value
  • not enough focus on results
  • too little tie-in to the business
  • no attempt to measure return on investment

And she’s not wrong, but she’s not entirely correct either. The problem is that Team-Building rarely includes adjusting Culture initiatives to support the Team-Building initiative.

What that means is that you can send you people out into the woods for a few days, sing a few verses of Kumbaya and get them to work together, but the moment they get back to work, if they have already built silos, the ingrained Culture will swallow the newly-minted Team-Building effort.

You see, Culture is stronger than any course. Culture is “the way it is.” And in order for “the way it is” to change, you have to take aim directly at the problem. People working together isn’t the problem. The team isn’t the problem. The existing silos and work-flow based on working inside of silos is the problem. The Attitudes of why your people don’t want to work with each other is the underlying problem. That isn’t solved by pretending to like each other for a weekend or forcing them to work together when they don’t want to. They know the Team-Building effort is only for a few days so they’ll suck it up and grit their way through it. Then, come Monday, it’ll be back to business as usual.

Team-Building, without addressing the underlying Culture, is like painting a car and hoping the new paint will stop the engine from burning oil. Nice effort – wrong place. You’ve got to get under the hood if you want to fix the problems. A new coat of paint won’t cut it. It’s the engine that’s malfunctioning – not the paint job. You’ve got to fix the Culture – not the behaviors that result from the Culture.



1. Anne Thornley-Brown, M.B.A. - July 22, 2010

No disagreement from me on anything you’ve stated.

“What that means is that you can send you people out into the woods for a few days, sing a few verses of Kumbaya and get them to work together, but the moment they get back to work, if they have already built silos, the ingrained Culture will swallow the newly-minted Team-Building effort.”

In fact, just sending people into the woods or getting a group of people to participate in activities is not team building. I have written and tweeted about that so often that I am even starting to bore myself.

Gaining Clarity: Why Recreation & Entertainment
are NOT Team Building

Only problem is, I can’t unfollow myself on Twitter. 😉

When I wrote the piece entitled “Why companies are cutting team building”, I focused on some specific areas of concern in the team building industry. I had been noticing a downward spiral for some time now. It has come to the point that when companies use the word “team building”, they are usually talking about “team recreation” at best and foolish and frivolous activities at worst. No need to re-hash my entire blog entry. You’ve provided the link for people to read if they so desire. I invite anyone reading this to do a search on Twitter for “team building” and you’ll quickly see that most of these tweets are focusing on recreational activities and many are referring to drinking alcohol as “team building”.

In the blog entry about why companies are cutting team building, did I set out to address everything that’s rotten in the state of team building? Absolutely not. My focus was very specific. I have never heard anyone say “we cut team building because we failed to address the underlying culture”. In fact, this (unfortunately) isn’t even on the radar in most instances.

Far too often, eyes glaze over when consultants try to help clients clarify team building objectives and state them in measuable terms. Ditto when attempts are made to initiate discussions about follow up, developing a strategy to transform the way teams operate in the real world, ensuring that rewards and recognition structures reinforce corporate values and the behaviour one is trying to encourag through team building, and measuring R.O.I. from team building. Instead, team building is treated as an annual or quarterly event rather than an on-going process with the potential to truly help transform an organization. In some instances the “team building” is just a way to free up and justify dollars for socializing and fun.

Is changing corporate culture important? You better believe it. Team building can be used as a vehicle to assist with this transformation. However, if there aren’t other changes in the organization, the impact of team building on corporate culture will be minimal.

Do I think addressing and transforming corporate culture is critical. Absolutely! In fact, thank you for giving me an opportunity to segway to my most recent blog entry that focuses specifically on team building and corporate culture. It’s called:

Team Building and Corporate Culture:
Hell’s Kitchen vs Ace of Cakes

It’s the beginning of a series of entries with this focus. In it, I suggest some specific tools that can helpful in the cultural transformation process. I look forward to comments from you and your readers on that entry too. Thank you for listening.

Kevin Burns - July 22, 2010


In my experience, I have found that the vast majority of senior executives are strong in business acumen, but incredibly weak at the human side of business – the people part. So when it comes to sorting out personalities and attitudes that contribute to an unworkable workplace, they attempt to do something to give the appearance that they know what they are doing. They do what everyone else seems to do – send people on a team-building session which, as you eloquently pointed out, has been dumbed down to include alcohol as a team-building event.

Until senior executives understand the following point, they will always struggle with their culture: “without people in the building, there is no business – just a lot of furniture, because it’s people working with and serving people that make the place run.”

Thanks for your insight.

2. Tweets that mention Why Team-Building Rarely Works « Managing w/ Attitude -- Topsy.com - July 22, 2010

[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Kevin Burns and Executive Oasis Intl, Executive Oasis Intl. Executive Oasis Intl said: RT @attitudeburns WhyTeam-Building Rarely Works http://bit.ly/9vr7Tv Response to my blog http://bit.ly/teambuildingcuts […]

3. Billy Kirsch - July 22, 2010

Exactly, well said. With proper planning and integration, Team Building can be a good catalyst for change.

Kevin Burns - July 22, 2010

But not “change” just for the sake of change. The change has got to mean something or solve an existing problem. Thanks for the reply.

4. Tony Mayadunne - July 22, 2010

Good points made here, Kevin. I know you are being a bit facetious with your singing Kumbaya in the woods, but it essentially does describe any of the team building programs that have sprouted in the past twenty years, a veritable cottage industry of questionable value.
I also like the metaphor of the coat of paint on a car not resolving the burning oil problem. In this context, the “culture” is actually the alignment of “official” culture (e.g. mission statement, Values etc) and the “unofficial culture” (e.g. office politics, peer social networks, watercooler conversations etc.). When the two are not in alignment, there is a cynicism that gets bred and which cannot be rooted out by upper management sending off various members on a team-building session, only to return to business as usual the following Monday morning. Seeking the points of disconnect between the official and unofficial cultures of an organization provides a great diagnostic into what is may be the root causes of the problems caused by such silos as you mention. Thanks for some excellent insights!

Kevin Burns - July 22, 2010

Tony, you bring up another item that makes me nuts: mission statement, values etc. Have you actually read the words on the mission statements in most workplace reception areas? They include some of the most vacuous, generic, non-committal terminology and it’s no wonder these same workplaces have a culture problem.

“To offer better products and better service than anyone else in the industry” are not words that inspire – they confuse. In many cases the values and mission statements are what is creating an unworkable culture because the employees don’t know what their supposed to be doing to achieve “better.” Better than the worst guys? Tough gig.

No, the vast majority of problems with culture are in how the “people” are treated. Stop speaking “professionalese” to your people and communicate with them like real people who have real families and real responsibilities to look after.

Connecting the “official” culture and “unofficial” culture, as you put it, is on the shoulders of middle managers (the folks who touch their people every day) not on some “team-building guy holed up in the woods for a couple of days. That exercise is just so laughable.

5. Anne Thornley-Brown, M.B.A. - December 4, 2010

Well Kevin, I finally did more writing about corporate culture. I have just released:

New: Corporate Culture – What is it and how to read it http://bit.ly/aboutcorporateculture

A while back I wrote:

Team Building and Corporate Culture: Hell’s Kitchen vs Ace of Cakes

I hope you’ll stop by and share your thoughts.

I agree with you 100% here:

“No, the vast majority of problems with culture are in how the “people” are treated.”

If a company has wonderful words pasted on the wall but the corporate culture is overly rigid, perfectionistic and harsh, the words are meaningless.

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