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When Team Building Retreats Go Wrong

Ian Cameron Jul 9, 2015 7:30:00 AM

Our team recently had an offsite meeting in Beaver Creek for work-related brainstorming and leisure time together in a refreshing setting. I have to say, I’m proud and fortunate to manage such a bright group of hardworking people. What’s even better is that there’s no animosity between our team, we have high retention and productivity levels and overall cooperative staff. It was a more than easy and fruitful two days in Southern Ontario with the team. Unfortunately, other mangers and teams aren’t so lucky.

A quick Google search of team retreat stories delivers a mix of entertaining and dreadful stories of tears, embarrassment and humiliation in the name of team building.

Considering the nature of workplace problems, such as inefficiency, poor communication, workplace harassment, gossip, or all around drama, we argue that team retreats are simply not the solution to most workplace troubles. While workplace retreats may be fun for functional teams, they have the capability to worsen a dysfunctional one. But why?

Why Team Building Retreats Don’t Always Work

Team building activities sound good conceptually. Remove the stress of work, spend the day doing something fun and then bam! Everyone will focus on bonding with each other and come out closer than ever. Except, unfortunately, it doesn’t always work this way because retreats are: 

Too short term: While it can take an instant for workplace or employee relations to shift in a negative direction, it’s rare that these relations can be altered for long term in such a short time. Many workplace problems are deeply rooted in culture or organizational structure, two things that take a long time to repair or diagnose.

Not addressing work-related problems: Tina may like Lisa as a person but when Lisa isn’t working in a way that’s compatible with Tina then Lisa will still harbor those negative feelings despite a day or two of high-intensity team bonding.

Hindered by Managers that aren’t hands-on: Since these activities are usually led by a coach or planned by a committee, they give passive managers the go ahead to just observe, or worse, take the day off. As you’ll see below, everyone plays a role in fixing team dysfunction. It’s important that managers participate in any proposed solution. Often, they’re the biggest problem.

Not appealing to natural temperament: Personality dictates that not every person will enjoy the same activities. A combination of temperaments also means that the chosen activity may lead to a direction in which you did not anticipate. A team of goal-oriented, competitive people taking part in competitive team building activity may result in more problems than solutions. A group of the opposite type of people may hate the idea of a game of capture the flag. Or a mix of different temperaments may result in some extremely engaged employees and some actively disengaged depending on your chosen activity.

So What's the Fix?

In her book, “You First”, Liane Davey points out, that all team members have a role in fixing team dysfunction. She points out five long-term responsibilities that each member must take on in order to help alleviate team dysfunction:

Start with a positive assumption: Davey asserts that a positive mindset will open one’s mind to listen and learn from their team.

Add your full value: She says that you'll be valuable as an employee if you bring the personal and professional benefits of yourself to your team.

Amplify other voices: Opening up for people and ideas that are normally overlooked or pushed off to the side will be healthier for the team.

Know when to say “No”: Don’t say yes to requests that will distract your focus.

Embrace productive conflict: Difficult conversations and decisions move a team and business forward. 

Before you consider your next team building retreat, make sure your team is thinking about these five things. You may just fix that dysfunction without a game of paintball.

Coaching Cheat Sheet

Topics: Employee Engagement, Productivity, Team Building

Ian Cameron

Written by Ian Cameron

Ian Cameron is the Managing Director of The McQuaig Institute®. He has more than 20 years of Human Resource and Organizational Development consulting experience. Throughout his career Ian’s focus has been on helping organizations realize their goals through their people and helping people live their passion through their work.