Team Building Makes Me Feel Dead Inside.

Team Building Makes Me Feel Dead Inside.

So I’m going to go off the deep end a little bit today, and talk about something that really upsets me. The topic? Spending money on Ham-Fisted Let’s-Be-Happy Employee Team Building Programs without taking the time to understand the state of employee morale.

I’m not saying team building programs have no place. In the right context, under the right circumstances, with the right team, they can be very beneficial. But management won’t know that unless they bother to actually look. Here’s a couple examples to demonstrate my point. These are anecdotal, but I’m quite certain I’ve presented the facts.

It's every employee's worst nightmare (image courtesy of D Sharon Pruitt).

It's every employee's worst nightmare (image courtesy of
D Sharon Pruitt).

Case Study #1:

a) A company cuts off employees’ Facebook, Twitter and other social media tools because “employees shouldn’t be doing that on work time”.

b) Management sends out a memo saying “people are going home too early” (when the same people are working through lunch and coming in early).

c) Management’s response to flagging morale was to provide a business coach who introduced mandatory team-building exercises in off hours, and ordered them to read a book on how happy employees are productive employees. On their own time, naturally. The management message to the employees was, “be happy or else”.


My response:

You know what? Your employees shouldn’t be solving work problems in the shower, or on the commute, or in bed late at night either, but I’ll bet they do. Not only have you cut off their social legs during work hours, but you’ve also cut off ways for them to let their friends know they have to work late because of b). Quit introducing constraints on your people and let them flourish on their own. If individuals are being excessive, address it individually. As for b), dude, your people are coming in early and working through lunch. They’re already giving you extra time. The penny pinching? Not helping your cause. The response with the mandatory team-building was a complete, unmitigated #fail, that’s likely to make the morale situation a whole lot worse.

Case Study #2:

a) A company brings over a slew of people from India to work on a project for a year or longer.

b) Morale is bad because the Indians miss home.

c) Management’s response is to make the Indians go to a seminar once a month where they can watch presentations about what a great team the company is to be a part of.

My response:

I don’t feel as bad for these guys, because it happens all the time. It’s very rare a company gives thought to the consequences of such relocation actions. Companies that do deserve a big pat on the back, because they’ve thought the whole thing through. When you relocate people to another country, if you don’t provide access to some kind of social community, your people are going to have to find it on their own. That’s hard, and very taxing, especially over the longer term. Unfortunately, in the above case, offering a mandatory seminar (aka propaganda) that forces already demotivated people to sit through slides of subject matter that (let’s be honest) they couldn’t care less about isn’t going to help the situation. To genuinely make a difference, it comes down to the following:

1) Do nothing as an organization, but take your folks out for beers now and again. Get to know them socially. This is a good approach that lets them know you care as a person, at least. This requires a bit of personal effort.

2) Spend time investigating the community, and gain access to local resources that will give your people a sense of home away from home. Develop programs. Get special discounts. Get involved. This requires a lot more company effort.

In either case, a flip, slough-off response won’t make the problem go away.

Unwanted Team Building

If you, or someone you care about, must endure mind-numbing, 'let's be friends' team building sessions, insist they be accompanied with this warning label (click for large size). Together, we can make a difference.

It is good and right to believe that happy employees are productive employees. I firmly believe that. The key word is “believe”. If you don’t believe, then jamming sweet, sticky saccharine down your employees’ throats is not going to make them happy. If you don’t believe, stop pretending you actually care, because trust me, nobody’s buying it. All you’re doing is pissing your people off and making them actively despise you. In truth, you’d be far better off with a workforce who just doesn’t care.

If you do believe, then you’ve got your work cut out for you.

Look. I know you’re busy. I know there’s a million concerns you have and team morale isn’t at the top of the list. But the culture in your organization is largely your responsibility. Whatever monsters lurk there are your creation: you’ve either created them yourself, or allowed them to thrive. If you’ve been neglectful with morale among your people, I’m afraid you have to accept that before anything is going to change for the better. Taking that step, perhaps you’ll be in the right frame of mind to reach out to your people and find out what it is you can do to make amends.

If you genuinely want improvement, you can’t just pass the problem off to a consultant and say, “fix it, I don’t have time for this crap.” Which is exactly the message you’re sending with a team building campaign you have no personal investment in.

I’ll let you off the hook, though. Some of you may genuinely want to help, and by implementing these programs, you really are trying to make a difference. To you folks, I say fixing morale isn’t a recipe you can just follow from a book and expect it to come out alright. It takes time, and effort, and it has to start with you. Go ahead and hire consultants, and bring in people to help. But don’t do it before you fully understand the breadth and depth of the problem you’re facing. And ensure any people you bring in to help are executing your vision, which should be a product of what you’ve learned from your people. As with anything else, implementing the wrong solution is very likely to make things worse.

To those who hold a strong belief in the efficacy of “Hug and Share for Success” Morale Boosting efforts, I would strongly advise you to make sure your results are genuine, and not a result of the employees saying, “I’ll do anything…please just don’t make me go to another one of those godawful team building seminars”.

If you feel as I do, forward this article to others who share your view and together let’s stop the madness!

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I’m a professor of project management at the college where I work. My students continually amaze me with their insights, passion and all-around awesomeness. I figure they deserve access to more answers than I can give them by myself. This site is for them.
  • jasonmartin530

    Hey Geoff,
    With respect to your case #1, I've been interested in the merits/pitfalls of allowing employees the flexibility to work a schedule that is only guided by their ability to get their jobs done. If manageable breaks for social networking and flexible work schedules are recognized in the behavior of the employees, and that appears to be what makes them happy, why not incorporate that into the culture of the corporation. Recognize it, develop some guidelines to control it, and then monitor the outcome. Maybe, a “let them eat cake” position would go a lot further toward a happy/productive corporate culture than a series of “contrived unwanted team-building” exercises.
    Keep up the great work!

  • Sorry to disappoint you but I'm 100% with you on this one mate!

  • Ty


    Great post! In marketing terms, it's all about the brand. Both the corporate and personal brand. You brand is your values and how those values are reflected at EVERY point of contact—with customers and employees. Advertising and marketing doesn't create the brand, it only reflects it. No matter what you say about yourself, both personally and as a corporation, you can't hide from what your brand really is for very long. Eventually you are naked to the truth.

    If you don't care about your employees and are only interested in the “value” they provide “you”, I agree with Geoff, don't pretend like you do. It won't matter what you do, they know it, they will not appreciate your fake efforts at teambuilding, and they will resent the time they spend doing it. (Especially if it is something you require them to do on their own time without paying them for it.)

    I hate to say it Geoff, but I have to disagree with you when you say, “…the culture in your organization is LARGELY your responsibility.” Morale is a top-down issue and is ENTIRELY the CEO or President's issue. Mr./MS. CEO, if you have a morale problem in your organization, it starts with you.

    Don't pretend it matters if it doesn't, and be prepared to loose good employees as a result. Few people really leave for more money, they leave because of the boss and the working environment.

    IF the way your employees feel about their job really matters to you, treat them like something more than part of the disenfranchised proletariat (opps, I'm getting carried away), treat them with dignity, respect, and concern at EVERY point of contact. Like it or not, if you're a jerk to your employees, is it possible that it will be reflected to your customers?

    What is YOUR brand? I guarantee your employees know if you don't.

  • HAHA Oh no, we can't have that at all! List me 3 things that make you really crazy and I'll incorporate them into a post about Twitter, Facebook and PM2.0! 😉
    Thanks for your ongoing support, Shim! *big smile*

  • Heya Jason, thanks for the comment! 🙂 I think you have something when you say “recognize it, develop some guidelines to control it and then monitor the outcome”. But I wouldn't necessarily call it a “let them eat cake” position. Marie, while she had fabulous wigs, and great taste in pastries, wasn't the most sensitive. LOL

    What matters ultimately, is that work gets done. How employees do it should be up to them, really. Allowing people to work their way, as long as it doesn't interfere with other work, gives them pride of ownership of their work. Instead of “let them eat cake”, I might say “let them be proud”. Okay that came out hokey but you know what I mean! 😀

    Cheers, Jason! And thanks for the continued support!

  • Dude. Bang on. You totally nailed it. When I said “largely”, I was thinking it might not be fair to make the CEO responsible for creepy people lower down the totem pole, but I've since had someone say to me, “no, the CEO allowed them to be creepy, so it's still their responsibility”. To which I can't really disagree.

    And you're bang on…”if you're a jerk to your employees, is it possible that it will be reflected to your customers?” *cough* Northwest Airlines *cough*

    It's like anything else. Decisions, actions, inactions, indecision…they all have consequences. If you don't think them all the way through, well, it's too bad for you if you don't like the outcome!

    Thanks, Ty! As always your comments totally rock! 🙂

  • ninabraschler

    Really great post, Geoff! I have recently read a similar article (see here: (Project) Managers should care about their employees, yes, but I think one can't learn this in school. To care about the employees just need to use your common sense. This is really not difficult. Unfortunately Managers often doesn't have time to spend a little time for thinking about their employees. So your “madness” happens. Managers should stop thinking about things like “my employees are always using Facebook during work” or “again another Twitterfeed of my employee, he'd better do his work”. They rather should trust in their employees and should get started to share some time with them. Then they learn to understand the people who are working for them. And probably the employees Twitterfeeds or Facebook comments take a back seat.

  • galleman

    There is an endless list of “management assumes.” Forget the detailed issues of FB, “happy hours,” and the like. The notion that management assumes is the core problem.
    This is a perfect example of missing the concept of “self organizing teams.”

  • Hiya Nina! Thanks again for a great comment! 🙂 Some of my less-experienced clients have a really tough time with exactly what you're mentioning. There's often so many tangible pieces that require the manager's attention that it's difficult to remember to think about the intangibles. Unfortunately a lot of the time it's the intangible things that can derail work, and make for unhappy people.

    I like what you said about Twitter and Facebook taking a back seat when morale is high. The inverse of that is, that when morale is bad, Twitter and Facebook come more to the front…for avoidance maybe?

    Thanks again, Nina, for joining the discussion! 🙂

  • Hi Glen! I think you're right that the details of FB or whatever are less relevant than the core issue of morale. But I disagree that a simple assumption on management's part that “it's handled” or “it's not a problem” is the issue. That would indicate simple ignorance of the problem (though that's not a valid excuse).

    When companies jam programs like these down their employees' throats, they already know there's a problem, or they wouldn't be looking for such programs. By selecting a solution they have no direct investment in, they are either:

    1) genuinely trying to solve the problem (“I don't know what else to do”)
    2) trying to pay someone else to slough the problem off to (“I don't have time for this crap”)

    In both cases, there is an active component of foreknowledge on the part of management. (Although one of them could be forgiven.)

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  • Brings to mind a manager I once worked with at an engineering shop who had a sign:

    “Flogging will continue until morale improves.”

    No ambiguity. No Hug-Fest.

  • PatrickRichard

    Hey Geoff,

    Not quite what I expected but still bang on. The cases you share display a lack of understanding that is scary enough that you should actually repost this one on Halloween!

    I had to submit to a couple of team building experience in the past; one was playing Laser Tag with a bunch of Y2K big cheeses and the other was a communications seminar.

    In the first case in became a “frag the management” game. That really made the us against them feelings vanish…

    In the second the seminar leader put all the managers in one group and all the technical people (my group then) in another. That really promoted communications…

    The only team building that ever worked was to actually suffer together through a project.

    Patrick Richard ing., PMP

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  • derekhuether

    Geoff, you are my muse!
    You're my hairy, male muse.

    Before I write a diatribe on my own blog about Case Study #1, I want to comment on the use of draconian corporate policies and how they fail to inspire people. I'm going to focus on Case Study #2. In one of my previous comments, I wrote about how my former [boss] and [boss boss] would relentlessly over-commit my team to the senior executives. The [boss boss] called them “stretch” goals. To do his bidding, he would only hire H-1B visa holders from India. He would also dangle a carrot of permanent residency status in front of them.

    Because I managed the entire department, I was the one who had to find some way to inspire my people. Let's be honest, it's hard to inspire someone when they are being treated as a disposable cog by senior management. When I explained how the team could not be pushed like that without repercussions, I was scoffed at. “What are they going to do!?” Each time we would have a deployment, working late into the evening, management would order (meat) sandwiches. It was a nice gesture but not when almost all of your team are vegetarian.

    I could go on and on.

    So, what is the lesson learned from this story? Listen to your people. Don't tell them what will make them happy. Ask them. My team was happy to work in the U.S., regardless of the working conditions. While I was their boss, I discovered a growing Indian community, just 30 minutes from the office. I was able to negotiate with management to let them take off Diwali instead of Christmas. I also ordered several cases of Indian snacks from a distributor in Mumbai, then gave the bill to my boss. You want happy developers? Give them snacks from home.

  • HAHA well that's just muse-tastic, Derek, thanks so much for the awesome comment!

    First of all, I'm glad you picked on case study #2 because I wasn't expecting much of a response to that one and here you've nailed it for me by providing examples of your own.

    First off, allow me to say, “stretch” goals piss me off. It's a way of setting people up to fail in the name of creativity. There is no other, beneficial way to paint that picture, and what I hate most about it, is the pretense that stretch goals are something other than what they are.

    I have to say, you are my hero because you ignored your management's douche-nozzlery and found solutions that were able to placate your people and show that you genuinely care in spite of your management's abominable behaviour.

    “What are they gonna do.” Oy the number of times I've heard that one. As if workers are chattel. That is one horrendous story you have there, my friend. And you deserve some serious props for not just keeping your people going, but actively getting your hands dirty, getting involved and working to make their lives that extra bit better.

    Thank you, Derek for that great story. I hope you've since managed to greener pastures (and found someone to key your ex-boss' car!—what an asshat!!)

  • I fully agree with you, Patrick! 🙂 Taking your lumps together as a team does more for solidarity than any half-baked shoot-em-up. Although fragging management can be serious fun. 🙂

  • HAHA thanks for the comment, Mark! That pretty much demonstrates my point exactly! 🙂

  • derekhuether

    I'm totally with you on the stretch goals. The “asshat” would say precisely what you wrote. When I asked how I was going to get the team to reach a completely impossible “stretch” goal, his response would always be “be creative”. When the team would ask me the same question, my response was “I was told you should be creative”. They would all roll their eyes because they all knew I had been overruled. I would never assign work without agreement from the team.

    Update. I left the company for greener pastures. Sure, we all deal with crap from time to time but I'm now in an advisory position. Both [boss] and [boss boss] were fired. I love karma.

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  • Mrs_adm

    Since when do employers care about morale? Not in my company…

  • I'm sorry to hear that.

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  • dude. you are like the buddha of the office. 

    team building always makes a little bit of sick come up. 

  • HAHA God knows I have the belly for it! “Team building” = smarmy!

  • That’s awesome, Joel! I’m very glad to have you here! Well, you and Hogarth! 🙂

    Your going out to lunch anecdote made me laugh out loud. You so nailed that one! LOL What you say about your “engineering and QA groups ready to go to war” is a perfect example of how team building should be. You don’t need to get them all out to a rock climbing expedition where Sue from QA will get grossed out by Bob from engineering’s sweaty armpits in her face, and everybody goes home feeling “I wish I worked at K-Mart”. All you need to do is find a work related problem that forces the two teams to collaborate. Problems like that are generally easy to find.

    I get in a lot of debates with folks about “solving the wrong problem”. That’s what your example of generic band aids do. Perfect analogy!

    Thanks again, Joel (and Hogarth), and welcome!

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