Does team building have to involve competition to be effective?

The short answer is “no”. In fact, some corporate environments are too competitive and this undermines organizational effectiveness. Who wants to work for a company where turf wars are constantly breaking out and everyone has to be watching their backs?

Entire groups can participate in collaborative projects with or without CSR elements to give back to the community. Collaborative activities can be an effective strategy for nixing the “us vs them” mentality.

This post was inspired by a question Jill Birkett submitted to me on Linkedin:

Anne, I know you are an expert on these things. What do you do about groups where many people are not naturally competitive? I’ve been in a few situations such as that, where the employees/group members genuinely LOATHE being required to partake of team-building exercises that required athletic strength, competitiveness, outdoor activities like tugging ropes, running on relay teams, etc. I realize sales people are somewhat more predisposed to be competitive, but I’ve been in situations where up to a third were not really interested in participating, were truly dragged unwillingly into it. Thoughts? Thank you.

There are 4 main reasons for breaking groups into teams.

  1. In terms of engagement and giving people a chance to participate, 6 – 8 is the optimal group size.  Keep a group of 40 or even 20 people together for a discussion and it will be challenging for everyone to get enough airtime. The contributions of the introvert will be missed and the more extroverted team members will dominate.
  2. If “breaking down silos” is an important objective of team building, giving employees an opportunity to bond with members of a cross-functional team can be effective.
  1. If too many people attempt the same activity at the same time, some participants will just end up standing around.  By breaking the group up into teams, everyone has a chance to participate.
  2. For some activities, competition adds the fun factor.

Remember games and activities, whether they are collaborative or competitive, are not a key ingredient of effective team building.

There are a number of ways to way to make team building less competitive and more collaborative.

  1. Shift to on-site team building with a focus on engaging teams in applying brainstorming tools to resolving teams specific business challenges. Remember games and activities, whether they are collaborative or competitive, are not a key ingredient of effective team building. They are a “nice to have” to energize teams and “flesh out” themes for team building simulations. Sometimes it is more effective to “fire with live bullets” rather than just simulating situations.
  2. Change the composition of the smaller teams and discussion groups for every exercise or activity. If this will result in too many changes, modify the composition every half day (or every few hours for shorter sessions).
  3. Set a target or score for the entire group to achieve and reward everyone present if the group hits the target.
  4. Include projects,  simulations, and activities that foster collaboration.

Just because a group participates in an activity or undertakes a project together that does not make it team building.

Remember to include all 8 keys to effective team building especially:

  • setting the context
  • debriefing
  •  business application exercises

Just because a group participates in an activity together that does not make it team building. Activities without these essential ingredients are strictly recreational or social. Corporate play days should never be used as a substitute for real team building.

Team Building That Fosters Collaboration

  • Factory simulations: Whether it’s a shoe factory, candy factory, bike factory,  or toy factory, the group works together to produce a product that is then donated to charity. A “factory” that fills backpacks with school supplies for children. The key is to pick a focus that appeals to a lot of people. Example: Our Inc. Inc. Inc.: Breaking Down Silos Team Building simulation is an example of a factory simulation.
  • Plan a Guerilla Marketing or Pop-up Event: They make great promotion events or fundraisers.
  • Charity or Business Related Projects: Gear the project towards the interests of the participants.There are many possibilities including planting community gardens, constructions projects, painting or doing repairs at schools in low-income areas, or building wells.All projects don’t have to involve physical strength. If there are enough team members adept at crafts, sewing, or, even quilting, this can form the basis of a project. Example: Visexecutaries: Seizing Opportunities in our Shifting Corporate Landscape team building simulation involves a project that can be completed in teams or as an intact group.
  • Cooking Team Building or Restaurant Simulations: Instead of making them competitive, the group can work together to prepare meals for charity or a pop-up restaurant for the homeless. Either do the cooking in phases so that everyone gets a chance to try all recipes. (e.g. appetizer phase, entree phase, dessert phase) or set up stations to prepare each course of the meal.
  • Shift to a Tech Focus: This  would appeal to tech-savvy groups. They could come up with innovations to uncover other uses for a company’s technology. It’s even an opportunity to partner with local universities. Draw inspiration for activities from Microsoft’s ImagineCup or the UAE Drones for Good Competition. You can simulate departments like marketing, sales and distribution so that everyone is involved and pulling together towards the same end.

Photo Credit: Jason Eppink, Kevin Dooley (Flickr)

Contact Executive Oasis International Today to Book


Collaborative Team Building Simulations



3 thoughts on “Does team building have to involve competition to be effective?

  1. Dr. Scott Simmerman says:

    Nicely done. People often LOVE to compete when they see that they have a chance of success. There is a great deal of research relating self-esteem and competition and challenge in the literature, much of it done with young children but mostly with college students.

    I have even had senior executive make non-competitive activities into competitive ones, such as challenging a group of people about to climb a high wall to do it faster than HIS group of people climbed it. Stuff like that.

    But we also need to recognize that “interdepartmental collaboration” is an oxymoron, generally because these same kinds of thinking about “My Team, My Team, My Team” or about individual accomplishments do not do much to knock down the silos or create cross-functional collaboration or innovation.

    Competition is great. It can also be costly when it comes to the Big Picture Outcomes. Like most things, it is an issue of balance.

  2. Katharine York says:

    These ideas have so much more potential than traditional team-building activities that pit people against each other, favour the fit and physical, and forget about basics like planning before diving in!
    In the past I’ve found so-called team-building days an expensive way of people learning nothing new about each other.

  3. Jill Birkett says:

    great creativity Anne! I especially like the idea of a team guerrilla marketing or pop-up event as a team building platform. and your statement “corporate play days should not be used as a substitute for real team building”. so true. Thank you

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s