Team building is a tricky thing to get right. Trust-building is even harder. And while breaking out of your everyday routines can increase focus and creativity, not everyone sees the value in scavenger hunts and three-legged races.
Take Carlos Valdes-Dapena, for example. The CEO of organizational development firm Corporate Collaboration Resources and author of Lessons from Mars: How One Global Company Cracked the Code on High Performance Collaboration and Teamwork considers traditional corporate team building to be “a waste of time and money.”
“Events like these may get people to feel closer for a little while,” Valdes-Dapena writes. “These bonds, though, do not hold up under the day-to-day pressures of an organization focused on delivering results.”
Valdes-Dapena cautions against team-building exercises that bring people closer together in the moment, but the connections disappear almost as soon as the activity is over.
Fortunately, trust-building activities can create opportunities for growth that our day-to-day work doesn’t always allow for. Leaders just need to know how to organize the most effective events.
Rethinking trust-building activities
According to Jenny Gottstein, former director of games at The Go Game—a firm that helps companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Netflix organize team-building activities—the focus needs to be less on competition, and more on trust and collaboration.
“Nothing is more isolating and damaging than a fear of taking risks or voicing one’s opinion,” she said in a 2016 interview with Forbes. “Effective team building creates a culture of trust simply by giving employees an opportunity to strengthen their interpersonal relationships, be vulnerable in a low-stakes environment, and try out new ideas with a safety net of humor.”
So what does an effective team-building activity look like? If we follow Gottstein’s advice, it can start with something as simple as sharing meaningful experiences. And that’s an activity that works for a team of 10 or 100.
Trust-building activities for any team size
Give back and volunteer
If the objectives of most team-building activities seem contrived and pointless, you might want to consider volunteering. It’s a great way to bring teams together for a real purpose—and it can be effective whether you have just five volunteers or turn it into a companywide initiative.
“I love the idea of combining a fun outing and giving back,” says Christa Foley, senior HR manager, culture advisor and director of insights at Zappos. “It’s the embodiment of doing more with less and building a positive team and family spirit combined.”
By working together to achieve something bigger, coworkers can establish a better rapport and learn more about each other’s values. What’s more, when employees practice empathy it can help to minimize conflict and build trust among teams.
Take an improv class
An improv class offers a chance for colleagues to interact in fun and unusual ways and learn more about each other in the process. According to Tom Yorton, CEO of Second City Works, the business solutions division of The Second City comedy theater, it also encourages people to work collaboratively and take shared risks.
“In an improv theater, failure is ever present,” Yorton writes. “But our actors’ material works often enough that they’ve learned to accept little failures on the way to larger successes. Business leaders need to embrace risk in the same way.”
Improv comedy may not be everyone’s first choice (rest assured: there are other team-building activities that encourage risk taking), but it does offer a casual and humorous setting for opening up—which can eventually foster feelings of psychological safety among coworkers.
Organize a talent show
While an improv class can work well when dealing with 10 or 20 employees, a talent show is a good alternative for larger teams and departments. At Slack, we once hosted a work-related talent show that asked employees to replace traditional performances with ones that centered around their favorite customer stories.
“The talent show helped our team build skills around presenting and storytelling, which is core to what we do,” says senior VP of sales and customer success Robert Frati. “It also gave us an engaging way to share best practices across a large, globally distributed team.”
Sign up for a race
Tech giant Salesforce encourages teams to sign up for 10K runs and obstacle races. This not only results in coworkers supporting each other on the day of the event, but also creates an opportunity for long-term support as colleagues train together.
It’s important for managers and employees to remember, however, that the goal is for everyone to work as a team, not to earn individual bragging rights. Team obstacle and relay races work best. In many cases, race participants raise money for deserving causes, which gives employees an additional incentive to work together.
Salesforce also suggests organizing an adventurous activity, such as rock climbing. Sharing a slightly scary (but still safe!) experience with coworkers can help strengthen bonds. And because you need to spot and belay each other while rock climbing, it can surely improve trust and teamwork.
Host a lunch-and-learn
Many organizations already host lunch-and-learns, but it’s worth reiterating the value these can have as team-building activities—especially if their scope is extended beyond job skills and insights. In an article for marketing software company HubSpot, contributor Swetha Amaresan recommends that these talks should discuss diversity and health, among other topics.
“This is not the time for intensive trainings, triggering material or firm talk-downs,” Amaresan writes. “Rather, this is a time to cover lighter topics that may not typically take priority in a busy employee’s day. … You want them to leave the lunch-and-learn feeling refreshed and excited to complete the second half of their day.”
These events also provide a unique opportunity for employees to chat with top-level executives they might otherwise not have much interaction with. Lunch-and-learns get everyone in the same room, regardless of their position in the company, and break down the hierarchical barriers that can often stifle teamwork.
Finding the right trust-building activity
There’s a place for traditional team-building activities like scavenger hunts and paintball matches, but these brief offsites and events are unlikely to influence team dynamics in a meaningful way.
By providing an environment in which employees can laugh, open up and support each other, you give colleagues the opportunity to build genuine friendships in the workplace—and perform better in their day-to-day roles too.