Why Companies are Cutting Team Building

Why Companies are Cutting Team Building

by Anne Thornley-Brown, President
Executive Oasis International

It’s simple.

– 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

It’s happened in organization after organization. One day the money is flowing freely. Eventually, someone in the executive suite says “Hey wait a minute, we’ve spent $1 million dollars (or $5 million and even more when one factors in the indirect costs like salaries for the participants) on WHAT? Drumming, hot air ballooning, paint ball, or grape stomping (that was featured on the Apprentice a few seasons ago) and we’ve passed it off as team building?

Update: If appealing to common sense doesn’t cause some companies to re-think their practice of spending money and passing off activities that are frivilous, fluffy and not related to business as “team building”, maybe considering some of the legal implications may be a wake up call:

As corporate bonding gets more extreme, companies risk legal trouble

From Frivilous to Foolish

Consider the following and when you’ve finished reading this entry, be sure to check out:

Gaining Clarity: Why Recreation and Entertainment Aren’t Team Building

Item 1: Firewalking

A recent team-building fire walk exercise left about 30 managers of KFC fast-food restaurants in Australia nursing sore feet. The incident comes hot on the heels (literally) of a similar mishap involving Burger King employees at a Key Largo, Fla.

Source: allbusinesscom

Item 2: More Firewalking

“Some workers would walk over hot coals for their jobs. Or fly from a trapeze. In the name of teamwork, companies are asking employees to perform all sorts of odd feats.”

“Whoppers aren’t the only things getting flame-broiled at Burger King these days. So are employees’ feet. In Florida last month, a dozen people attending a motivational seminar suffered burns while strolling on a river of hot coals. They also marched across a bed of nails and smashed their hands against inch-thick boards.
No, Burger King hasn’t opened a house of torture for its workers. The seminar was part of a small but growing trend in which corporations use offbeat gimmicks to boost morale and teamwork.”


EMC, a data storage company, has sent 5,000 employees on coal strolls since 1995, at a reported cost of $625,000. “Fire walking helps [the staff] prepare for intimidating sales situations,” explains EMC’s February newsletter. “Overcome self-doubt, and everything is possible.”
Well, maybe not every thing. Since February, the value of EMC stock has skidded from $80 a share to about $16.


Source: Los Angeles Times

Item 3: Hostage Taking

“Managers at Ericsson, the Swedish telecom company, were apparently hard pressed for a memorable team-building exercise for their international sales conference in Athens this February. They probably wanted something more than the standard fare: ropes courses, white-water rafting, and other extreme sports. So they turned to hostage taking.

Unbeknownst to salespeople on a corporate bus headed for Corinth, Ericsson had hired two men with masks and weapons to stage a hijacking. The exercise was reportedly designed to test the employees’ cool under stress. But the performance was cut short by a meddling passerby with a cell phone who called the authorities. “Definitely, this was very unfortunate,” says Ericsson spokesman Lars Ostlund. “The mistake was not giving notice to the police.”

While most companies stick to torturing their workers by forcing them to hold hands and accomplish pointless tasks–preferably while blindfolded–others have gone to extremes. Unfortunately, these exciting games have put some team players on the disabled list. In England in 1998, for example, insurance company Eagle Star sent 13 salespeople walking across a bed of hot coals on the advice of a management consultant. Guess what? Seven burned their feet, two badly enough to require hospitalization. Eagle Star says it has learned its lesson and now sticks to more conventional bonding exercises.


Source: Time Inc.

Item 4: Grape Stomping

Peggy Wilson recalls how frenzied the competition got when about 90 General Mills managers grape-stomped in May on a lawn at the Fairmont, one pair at a time. One person in bare feet would stomp the grapes in a redwood barrel, while the other frantically directed the liquid through a spout in a bid to produce the most juice.

“You really had to stand back,” said Ms. Wilson, an executive administrative assistant in the manufacturing division. “I’m not saying it was enough to draw blood, but some people will do just about anything to win.”

“Team-building activities can also have a democratizing effect among staffers; Ms. Mertes-Stone recalls how the owner of a national hotel chain, then in his 80’s, squeezed into a barrel with some of his managers. “After he finished, he took a swig,” she said. “When the C.E.O. and his top people are doing the same thing, it’s a great equalizer.”

Some skeptics feel these exercises have gone too far. Dr. Kenneth Sole, a social psychologist and president of the organizational-change consulting firm Sole & Associates in Durham, N.H., says he does not think such exercises do much good. “There is no need to learn from the ‘analogy’ that we might draw from activities that are far afield, both literally and figuratively,” Dr. Sole said. “Such approaches have the effect of contributing to the avoidance of important issues that people often confront in their efforts to become a successful team.”

Source: New York Times

The Height of Frivolity

Item 5: Jumping Castles/ Inflatables

I didn’t include this category in the original post as I thought it was obvious. Apparently, it isn’t. Now I enjoy a good jumping castle. When my son was younger, I used to take him to amuse himself for hours and I even joined in on the fun. Jumping castles are great fun and fine for parties, picnics, and carnivals. Sorry, they aren’t team building and it boggles my mind that some organizations are marketing them like that.

I once had an acquaintance try to convince me that a jumping castle is team building. She had just joined a company that marketed them. I said “Please explain how this is team building”. She said “It’s team building because when it’s over we say ‘Okay guys now get into groups and talk about what you learned’. Please give me a break.

This one takes the cake:

Item 6: Bouncing on a Trampoline is not Team building

This is from Don’t suffer team-building torture. Go bowling alone – This fake office camaraderie is ludicrous, Times Online

Here are some excerpts:

“A few years back I was staying at a country house hotel in Yorkshire when, around mid-morning, a loud commotion came from outside, with screams and whoops and boisterousness, and there, on the manicured lawns below my window, a party of overexcited adults were bouncing up and down on trampolines. They were, of course, on a team-building exercise, which is what happens when people in human resources and middle management have too much time on their hands ….”

“Anyway, soon the yelps subsided and were drowned out by sirens as one of their number turned out not to be a budding Queen of the Trampoline after all, but a slightly uncoordinated and highly earthbound accounts executive from Ripon.”

“So later I was in the bar with a friend who is a football manager and as a result reasonably famous, and one of the tumblers, now suited and booted, recognised him and broke off from another cacophony of team-building nonsense across the hall to ask if he could spare some time to cheer up one of his colleagues, who was freshly returned from hospital in a wheelchair, having broken a leg attempting an airborne pirouette earlier in the day. “

Item 7: Paddling

Janet Orlando, 53, quit her job at the home security company Alarm One Inc. and sued, alleging discrimination, assault, battery and infliction of emotional distress.

Employees were paddled with rival companies’ yard signs as part of a contest that pitted sales teams against each other, according to court documents. The winners poked fun at the losers, throwing pies at them, feeding them baby food, making them wear diapers and swatting their buttocks.
“No reasonable middle-aged woman would want to be put up there before a group of young men, turned around to show her buttocks, get spanked and called abusive names, and told it was to increase sales and motivate employees,” her lawyer, Nicholas “Butch” Wagner, said in his closing argument.

Lawyers for Alarm One, which is based in Anaheim, California, and has 300 employees, said the spankings were part of a voluntary program to build camaraderie and were not discriminatory because they were given to both male and female workers.

Janet was awarded $1.5 million but on appeal, this was overturned as both men and women were paddled….Go figure!

Source: Originally Reported on CNN http://www.corpun.com/usi00604.htm

Even though the economy has been in a tailspin on and off since 2001 with rollercoaster like fluctuations, it boggles my mind what some organizations are STILL doing in the name of team building.

I have already blogged and written about the fact that many organizations don’t seem to know the difference between team building and team recreation. It’s to the point that everything from bowling to taking the team out for pizza to cattle round ups and, I kid you not, wolf howling, fireeating and rattlesnake handling is being lumped together under the banner of team building. The snake handling has disappeared since the time we wrote about it but have a look:

Fire Eating for Team Building

At a time when our global economy is in trouble, how can one justify spending money on activities like these and passing them off as team building.

Organizations really need to put such frivolity aside and get a grip.

What is wrong with this picture?

Despite the fact that we are in a global recession, most requests to team building companies are STILL for activities that are strictly recreational.

Eyes seem to glaze over when one speaks about goals, objectives and tools and strategies to improve organizational performance. Instead of asking questions about how the session will help the team improve its contribution to the organization, the focus becomes:

– Can we shorten the business simulation so that people have more time to go shopping?
– Will there be a fridge for our beer?
– Can we start later in the morning because some people will be hung over?

Before you get the idea that I am against having fun, I assure you, I am not. In fact, I place such a high value on fun that my company does not offer programmes that are devoid of the “fun factor”. I just think that it is possible to do both, have fun AND raise the bar.

How to Guarantee that Your Team Building Budget Disappears

So before you ask your assistant to pick up the phone and inquire about yet another activity that is strictly recreational remember, one of these days, someone on the ball in the executive suite is going to ask:

Where’s the value? How much time was spent debriefing the activity and drawing links to our business? Were and business or planning exercises part of these sessions? How did this further the business? How did this improve performance or team interaction?”

Suddenly, “poof” the money is gone and team building is something we used to do.

If you want to ensure that your budget for team building is gets cut, treat it like a commodity. Give the most inexperienced person in your team the responsibility for contacting prospective suppliers. Give them very little guidance, after all, you’re busy right? They’ll focus strictly on the activity and short list based on what sounded like the most “fun”. They won’t be able to answer questions like “What are your objectives for this session?”, “What major challenges is your team facing?” and “What specific improvements do you want to see in organizational and team performance?” They’ll shortlist and present options to you based on sound like fun or what’s cheapest.

When making your selection, go for the latest fad, what’s hot and the flavour of the month. No matter how crazy and “out there” the activity happens to be, call it team building so that everything will look legitimate on the financial statements.

Eventually, the money for team building will disappear from your company’s budget as it has in other organizations. It’s guaranteed. On the other hand, if you really want team building to be a value added, give careful attention to clarifying your objectives and allow sufficient time for defining your team building strategy and planning.

Related Articles:

Executive Oasis International offers business simulations for team building, executive retreats and incentive travel. Featured destinations include Canada, Jamaica, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Oman, Singapore, Malaysia

Other Resources:

Business Simulations for Team Building and Executive Retreats


14 thoughts on “Why Companies are Cutting Team Building

  1. Fred Arden says:

    Excellent post. Team building always helps to build any reputed workplace and share knowledge and experience. Thank you very much for this beautiful share.

  2. michael cardus says:

    I am happy to see this post – I agree why are companies searching for recreation. My idea is that there is a lack of understanding of team building and as organizations become more “horizontal” choices are being made by consenses or group think.
    I remember I once turned in a a proposal for a corporate team development.
    Even during the preliminary questions the company kept saying, people may not like this. So they asked me for three proposals and then gave them to the team members all 100+ of them to choose what they wanted to do.
    Of course they chose the one that was nothing but fun and the cheapest. Also team building for 100+ people can only yield run and recreation.
    I like you LOVE FUN PROGRAMS and my programs all have a HUGE FUN FACTOR!
    Although I am not sure when and why “team building” is gaining an increaseing view as an amusment park.

    Thank you for this post –

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