With Martin G. Moore

Episode #170

Epic Team Building Fails: It’s hard not to be cynical

This week, we’re taking a look at team building exercises. They come in all different shapes, sizes and colors… some are useful, some are borderline disastrous! During my corporate career, I had my fair share of both.

So, do we need to reevaluate our commitment to the annual off-site meeting? Do the benefits outweigh the risks? Does smashing each other with paintballs or abseiling down a cliff face actually bring us closer together?

In this episode I give an insight into my own team building fails, cover off the most common problems to be aware of, and offer some suggestions for building team morale without needing to leave the safety of your own office.

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Episode #170 Epic Team Building Fails: It’s hard not to be cynical

This week we’re taking a look at team building exercises. They come in all different shapes, sizes and colours. Some are useful, some are borderline disastrous. During my corporate career, I had a fair share of both. When we think about the value or otherwise of these events, it may give us pause for thought.  Should we reevaluate our commitment to the annual off-site meeting? Do the benefits outweigh the risks? Does smashing each other with paint balls or abseiling down a cliff-face actually bring us closer together?

There are many dimensions to the humbled team-building exercise and if we choose to conduct them, we need to go in with eyes wide open.

  • I’m going to start by sharing a couple of my own team building fails

  • I’ll run through some of the more obvious problems in the world of team building exercises

  • I’ll finish with some ideas for building team morale every day, not betting on a once-a-year silver bullet to make a difference.

So let’s get into it.

If you’ve worked in a corporation the last 20 years or so, you’ve probably participated in the dreaded team building exercise at some point. These come in a bunch of varieties. First of course, we have lunches, dinners and drink sessions. Now these are fairly innocuous. They don’t require much input or structure. They’re largely tolerable even for non-drinkers and the less sociable amongst us, and it’s easy to limit the time exposure – they’re normally a couple of hours at most. Then we have off-sites – going to a conference centre or facility in a different location. These provide a change of scenery in which you’re captive and they’re often multi-day events so they can cover quite a lot of ground. Now, usually these events mix in some work, for example, a strategy workshop or business planning session, with some team building exercises and social activities.

Then, of course, we have pure activity days. The classics are paint ball, a go-kart racing and rope courses. These can be physically demanding as well as emotionally and psychologically scarring. Now, I’ll tell you about one of my own activity day fails shortly, but the basic theory underpinning all of these types of exercises is that they build trust, understanding and goodwill between team members. The problem is, if you dislike someone in your team before the team building activity, it’s very unlikely that this will change as a result of the activity. If you don’t trust someone beforehand, you’re unlikely to trust them anymore afterwards – and if your communication with another team member is strained, it won’t magically become less so at the end of the paintball game.


Well over 20 years ago, I was living in Canberra, Australia’s capital. Canberra is an inland city, about 150 miles southwest of Sydney. It was purpose-built as the capital because when Australia’s Federation was being formed over a hundred years ago, no one could agree on whether Sydney or Melbourne should be the capital – so Canberra it was! Sort of in between the two, the population of Canberra today would probably be around 400,000 people – but it seems bigger because like Washington DC, it gets the regular influx of powerbrokers and politicians when Parliament is sitting. I was a project director hired under contract out of Sydney, which was my home, to deliver some critical new software systems for the federal government. Back then, the now-CEO of Your CEO Mentor, Emma Green, was a mere slip of a thing in primary school.

I had a smallish team – less than a hundred people – and I decided I was going to hold a team building day. Now, one of the distinguishing features of Canberra is that it has many thousands of acres of natural pine forests. At the time, I was probably the most physically fit I’d ever been in my life. I was competing in marathons, so in training, I’d probably run about 50 miles a week or 80 kilometres. Now in running that many miles, to protect the joints and muscles from the worst impact of running on hard road surfaces, we would often run in forest trails. The scenery was magnificent, and training in the mountains was often very challenging as well. That’s where we build our strength and endurance. So I knew these trails really, really well.

One day I had a bright idea of running a team building exercise in the forest. Why not have an orienteering competition followed by a barbecue lunch? It was spring and the weather was perfect. The activity would be carried out in teams, which we chose based upon the touch points that people had in their project teams. It would be held within normal office hours, so there was no out-of-hours commitment. People were going to turn up to work anyway, and it was relatively inexpensive. So I designed the exercise in conjunction with some of our leaders.

Now orienteering, in case you don’t know, is a physically demanding exercise. Everyone starts at the same point, and with the use of physical maps, each team has to locate and visit a number of pre-established checkpoints. Now, you’ve got to remember, this was well before the advent of smartphones, which had in-built GPS. The maps are topographical, so you can see the rises and falls in elevation, and you have a compass so you know which way you’re heading. To make things more interesting, there is actually a time imperative. It’s actually a race to see which team can collect all checkpoints and return to the origin point the fastest. We realised that there were significant variances in the physical capabilities of the people on the teams, so we decided to level the playing field a little – we added a mental exercise dimension. At each checkpoint there was a sheet of paper with some sort of mentally challenging problem that needed to be solved, and most of these required collaboration by the team members. Points were awarded for getting to a checkpoint of course, but double points rewarded for solving the problems. That way the less athletic amongst us could still be competitive.

So “What could possibly go wrong?” I hear you ask. Well, I know it’s a bit of a lame ending to the story because nothing did go wrong, but it wasn’t until years later that I realised what could have gone wrong.


Australia is legendary for its proliferation of animals that can kill you. It was well-known that the forests of Canberra were home to some pretty nasty critters: red-belly black snakes which are timid, but deadly if you step on one; Eastern brown snakes – equally deadly, but also quite aggressive if disturbed. Now, I didn’t think much about this at the time because I was pretty comfortable running the trails up there, but equally I did absolutely nothing to mitigate this risk. In addition, it was a pretty hot day, and although we had plenty of water and Gatorade at home-base, there was no hydration out on the course. I hadn’t organised any medical support – in fact, I didn’t even have vehicular access to the forest trails, nor had I assessed my people’s medical histories to see if the activity would be dangerous for them to participate in. And medical waivers? Well, it would have been interesting to see what the legal implications were if there had been a major incident.

Basically, it was just dumb luck that everything worked out okay. So what was the wash-up? Well, everyone had a pretty enjoyable day. No one was rushed to hospital, nor was one teammate compelled to suck the venom out of another teammate’s leg after a snakebite. No one suffered dehydration or collapsed on the course – but was it valuable to the project team and the organisation? Those who were already aligned to the project objectives and mission remained that way. Those who weren’t, remained that way. Communication channels may have been marginally improved in some cases, but it was an expensive and risky way to do it. But I had a lot of fun, and I managed to get away with it – more by good luck than good management.


Much more recently – probably within the last five years, I held an off-site strategy day for my executive team at CS Energy. The session was a bit of a hybrid: part strategy session; part work-program  implementation planning; part team building; and part social interaction. We went to a modest resort, a short drive out of Brisbane for a couple of days. I had an external consultant come in and run the session for us – and she was really good. All of us also went through a 360 degree feedback exercise in advance of the session and we shared the results with each other – and of course I was part of that too. Right? You’ve got to eat your own dog food. Overall, this was a pretty interesting experience.

On the next day, the work-related pieces went well as we reviewed the draft strategy we’d been preparing, and started to work through implementation and resourcing plans – but then it got a little more interesting. The dreaded team building exercise…

We were broken into three teams of three and given a bunch of props – I don’t recall exactly what they were, I’ve clearly pushed this deep into my subconscious. But, let’s say it was paper clips; drinking straws; cardboard; and coloured Sharpies. The directions: build a scene that depicts CS Energy’s future state. Now look, I don’t want to be a Scrooge, but I found this exercise to have absolutely no benefit whatsoever. Maybe I’m just a guy that misses the point – but for those of you who’ve been involved in these types of exercises before, I think you know what I mean. After that, we had the round-table session where each executive talked the team through their 360 degree results, and what they were going to work on to improve their leadership performance. That was really valuable and also quite revealing.

I think at the end of that off-site exercise, I became pretty clear on the pros and cons of these types of processes. The pros were:

  • The executive team got to spend some uninterrupted time together

  • We furthered the strategy discussion in a way that we probably wouldn’t have if we’d remained in the office environment

  • We learned more about each other’s leadership styles, and gained a better understanding of the challenges each of us was facing.

I think the results of the little team building exercise drove a bemused cynicism, rather than having a positive impact. I guess I’ve never really understood how building a rocket-ship out of drinking straws helps – #LifeSkills. On top of that, we had the whole executive team out of the office for a few days –  which shouldn’t be an impediment, but I’m sure it had a negative impact on the productivity of the teams left at the office. I know it shouldn’t of course, but knowing some of the leaders back in home-base, I’m sure it did. So would I do it again? Well, you know, maybe I would – but I’d more likely reserve these sessions for celebrations of major milestones and not confuse the purpose too much. All the most valuable work can be done without leaving the comfort of your own office.


All right. Let’s just recap and summarise briefly on the obvious problems that can arise in team building exercises:

Team building exercises are of questionable value

I don’t think there’s any correlation between these events and improved team connection and performance. They say that a change is as good as a holiday and maybe, that’s all the humbled team building exercise will ever be – a holiday.

How do you enforce the right values and behaviours during a team building session?

When you’re out of the office, people tend to forget that they’re bound by the same rules they are at work – Christmas parties have always been an issue. I made it a point of leaving Christmas parties early and sober. And the parting words to my senior executives were “Don’t let anyone do anything that HR can’t fix on Monday.” As leaders, you have to make it really clear to people that the same standards of behaviour and respect apply for any interaction – regardless of the location, the setting, and the time of day.

A team building exercise can often just consolidate existing cliques

Be careful not to fall for this one as it can quickly turn a potentially positive experience into a deep negative. Make sure if you’re going to do it, that you think carefully about how to group people during the various exercises.

Team building sessions favour some people’s styles more than others

For example, extroverts are generally more comfortable in introverts when thrown into unfamiliar surroundings. So it’s important to think about how to cater to the different styles in order to involve everyone.

Team building can be too centralised 

If I decide to run a team building exercise for multiple levels of leaders, it can effectively be a subtle form of micromanagement. You’re getting in under your leaders to take control of their teams in an essential element of team performance – even if it’s only for a brief moment in time. But it can de-emphasize and diminish the accountability of the line leaders for doing this type of work with their teams during the normal course of business. And that extends to planning, motivating, and innovating.

Logistics and mechanics

Can you ensure your people’s safety? Does your insurance coverage extend to this context? How do you take precautions to mitigate the key risks?

So clearly there’s a lot of things to think about, but rather than just throwing the baby out with the bath water and not having team building sessions at all, perhaps just bear in mind these likely issues. If you can cover these off thoughtfully, there might still be a place for the team building exercise.


Here’s the thing, the intent of team building exercises is to create higher functioning teams – but imagining that this can be achieved with a once-a-year team building exercise is just a little farfetched. It feels like a silver bullet that we hope will improve team collaboration and performance when too little is happening in the actual run of play.

Teams are built every day by the leaders who oversee them. It happens in the daily interactions between your people and you, as the leader, need to set clear expectations. You have to emphasise the importance of productive working relationships. You can’t do it for them, but you can make sure your people work on their relationships with each other. Make it part of their performance assessment! At CS Energy, one of the six performance categories that apply to leaders at all levels was: working across boundaries. Every leader in the company was assessed on how well they worked and interacted with their peers and those not in their immediate line. This formed part of their overall performance outcome, and was linked to financial incentives.

Also remember, high-performing teams require productive tension, and this is forged over a long period of time – not at a single point in time. This is why you have to treat every meeting you have as an opportunity to reinforce your expectations in this regard. It’s the same process of setting the standard that applies to every other part of your leadership role.

As for the other team building exercise outputs…Well, you can, and should be stretching people to solve real-world problems as part of their day jobs. You can choose to put together multidisciplinary teams whenever it makes sense to do so, and you can make it clear to the leaders below you that you expect them to do this in their daily roles to achieve the best outcomes. If you build these things into the normal working environment, it becomes part of the culture: the way we do things around here.

A team building exercise on the odd occasion can be a fun way to release some pressure and reinforce what you’re doing every day. But it’s no substitute for the real thing – repetition and reinforcement count. So don’t ever miss those opportunities to build a stronger team that present themselves every single day.



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