What Does ‘Real’ Team Building Look Like?

Yesterday, I had a really interesting exchange on #eventtable chat  on Twitter. You see, I was the guest and the topic was Creating Effective Team Building Retreats.

We talked about some of the topics that have been covered on this blog.

I was very clear about the fact that I feel the industry is missing the mark by having suppliers of strictly recreational activities lumped together under the banner of team building.

How Companies are Missing the Mark

You see some organizations are forgetting that businesses exist to generate profit. Their primary mission is not to provide social activities for employees.  It’s a trap  into which many organizations fall. When the good times roll, there is a  heavy emphasis on corporate play days that are justified in the name of “team building”. This is followed by massive cuts in team building budgets whenever the economy dips.

A few hours later, I was bombarded by hostile tweets from paintball aficionados attacking me and insisting that paintball is real team building. The nastiness and aggressiveness of some of the comments was a clear indication that this type of activity does little to build the skills that are needed for teamwork, communication, and collaboration in business. Can you imagine having a group of employees go on commando style attack like these weekend warrior types every time they disagree with a co-worker? This level of aggression would turn any organization into a war zone.

I am not buying any of it. How can pelting co-workers with paint cartridges and inflicting pain improve teamwork and boost the bottom line? I’m not picking on paintball. I love horse riding, polo, and games on horseback but I would never try to build a case that, as stand-alones, these activities are “real” business team building.

For the past decade, the term “team building” has been dumbed down to mean just about any activity that brings a group together whether it is going out for drinks after work, walking on coals, or, the latest, riding a bucking bronco machine.

The REAL R.O.I. of Team Building

There are many different circumstances in which teams come together to achieve results. Think of athletic teams, orchestras, chefs and chef’s assistants working together, dance troupes,  TV & film crews, and theatre companies. Businesses can learn valuable lessons by identifying key success factors for many different types of teams. However, simply playing in a band, cooking, or dancing is not business team building.

The bottom line is that ANY recreational activity by itself will not and cannot produce bottom line results. PERIOD. The exception is if your business is a recreation centre or sports complex and your core business is to generate revenue through these social and recreational activities.


Business team building is about bringing the team together & using their collective genius to achieve results. Expertly facilitated team building can help business organizations generate specific and measurable business results.

Yes, you can have fun doing it. Energizers and activities during the course of team building can help participants relax, let off steam and get to know each other better……. but fun, by itself, is not a substitute for team building.

What Business Team Building Looks Like

So if recreation by itself is real team building, what does real team building look like?

First let’s set the context. In business, employees are members of interdependent teams. In many instances, teamwork is required to produce results and results are not generated by individual workers operating independently. Work groups and  teams go through predictable phases of development. Each phase has specific tasks that must be completed to ensure team health and effectiveness. Team building can help teams navigate these phases.

Here is what “real” business team building looks like.

  • There are clear and specific business objectives. 
  • The CEO or another senior executive drives the initiative.
  • The CEO or another senior executive sets the context.
  • There is a facilitated business simulation or some type of shared team experience which may or may not include recreational components. (In some instances such as teams experiencing a lot of conflict, recreation would be inappropriate.)
  • There are often brainstorming and problem solving exercises.
  • Team Projects are a fabulous vehicle for linking team building to the real business world.
  • There is a debriefing to uncover how team building relates to business
  • There are business applications exercises to apply what has been learned to the organization’s specific business opportunities, issues or challenges.

The Role of Themes in Team Building

A theme that reflects the challenges and opportunities of the real business environment is a great way to tie everything together. This theme can drive and shape the recreational components. It should never be the reverse (i.e. building team building around an activity just because it sounds “cool”. Save that for team socials). Here are just a few examples:

As for paintball, football or foosball for that matter, merely tossing around a ball or shooting paint cartridges out of a canister can in no way shape or form be considered to be business team building. For sure, recreation can and in most instances should be incorporated into team building retreats and shorter team building sessions. It relaxes people, helps break down barriers, promotes bonding, and sets the stage for real team building to begin.

The Role of Recreation in Business

Is there a place for strictly  recreational activities in the corporate world? Absolutely. Companies would be dreary places to work if no one ever laughed or smiled. There is a place for company picnics, Christmas parties and recreational outings…even paintball if it floats your boat. The key is that, unless your business is a country club or a recreation centre, the budget for recreation should never exceed or be close to what is spent on “real ” team building to help the organization achieve its mission and purpose. Public sector organizations and non-profit organizations need to keep this in mind too. Recently, a number of them have come under fire for squandering significant amounts of taxpayer or fundraising dollars during “play days”. It’s a matter of degree.

Much as this might upset those who peddle paintball and other recreational activities,  recreation is not team building. Marketing recreation as team building is just as misleading as marketing icing as cake, gravy as meat or dessert as dinner.

For more  discussions about this issue, also consult:

Keep Executive Oasis International in mind the next time your company requires team building, an executive retreat or corporate event planning in Canada, the Caribbean, Europe, Singapore, Malaysia, Japan, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Oman, or Jodan.

Visit Executive Oasis International Website

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19 thoughts on “What Does ‘Real’ Team Building Look Like?

  1. kristle says:

    This is a wonderful article and it certainly gives me greater insight on team building and how to organise better team building exercises. Thank you!

  2. The Trainer says:

    I do not believe an effective team build should allow any person the privilege of using their designation within the company our in the arena for team building. His or her power must be neutralized.

    I also agree, there is no way I am going on a team build to allow my senior nor junior associates the opportunity to bruise me, by shooting frozen paint balls at me, even if it is fun. I am the ultimate GI Joe, when it comes to bush warfare, so it is not that I don’t want to be targeted, I sharp shoot, so I will merely lay in wait.

    Quad bikes, once again, lead many teams over mountains and through rivers, never thought it was team building, some delegates are terrified, makes no sense, merely some executive trying to influence his juniors with his ego by exposing them to what he enjoys.

    I had to rescue a receptionist off a cliff, took 2 hours. With helmets on, in a single file, and the roar of quad bike engines, bumper to bumper up cliffs, there is no way that is team building. Irrespective of indemnity forms, the delegate does not know the potential of injury, and with peer pressure at the safety session, they sign away.

    Now that injured/terrified receptionist sat down in base camp for 2 days, while everybody else went petrol head in an effort to see what the limits of the machines were.

    There is an art and science to effective team builds, and it does not need to be high risk nor expensive.

  3. Anne Thornley-Brown, M.B.A. @executiveoasis says:

    I agree. I do find it is helpful to include outdoor team activities and challenges as part of a facilitated team building simulation or retreat.

    When budgets are tight thought, on-site team building can also be delivered effectively. It means cutting back to the meat and potatoes and saving the dessert for when the economy picks up.

  4. Kaimilla Brown says:

    For me, team building is better done outside the workplace. You can have it in the beach or other places that you an relax and enjoy while learning. Team buildings is very important in a work place in order to have a work condusive environment.

  5. Anne Thornley-Brown, M.B.A. @executiveoasis says:

    Thank you Michael.

    The first time I had a client call and request a night at a hotel and fun and games was about a decade ago. I was stunned that any CEO would spend money on this. This was not an incentive trip but I guess today it would be considered “local incentive travel”.

    Since then, I have watched the term “team building” become polluted and bastardized to the point that even getting together with a group and watching paint dry would be considered to be “team building”.

    I agree. It is important to really dig deep and clarify what clients mean when they ask for “team building”. It’s to the point that many mean a corporate play day. These same companies are stunned when the budget for team building is eventually axed and those responsible for it are “downsized”. They fail to see that it is their negligence in ensuring that the bulk of initiatives are tied to the bottom line that contributed to the demise.

    For sure, my company offers some recreational activities for corporate teams but it is not our main focus. We make that really clear on our website and we go to great lengths to clarify what the client is requesting and ensure that they are clear that recreation by itself is not “team building”.

    It’s to the point that consultants who provide real team building with bottom line value are going to have to come up with a brand new term to ensure clarity and separate themselves from the pack. That would make a great think tank or brainstorming session. Going to IMEX America anyone?

  6. Michael Cardus says:

    Recreation is fine and an option for companies.

    The challenge lies in what we mean by ‘team building’ and the working definition we hold. To some, ‘team building’ is just hanging out, to others team building is working towards building the team to complete work.

    Defining with your client up-front what they mean and what you mean can help to end the team building confusion. Slowing down and stating to a client that I see team building as supplying your existing work team with skills, models, actions and role clarity needed to complete and add value to the work being done. This informs the client of what you see and how you approach team building. Any team recreation (even paintball although I agree not sure how) is just a tool and it is how you use the tool matters.

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