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Team building or team busting? Are you perpetuating unhealthy team dynamics with parlor games?

Is hatchet throwing really a team building activity?

In my humble opinion, I think there’s some confusion about team building.  There are so many fun events that are available for teams, for example:


  • Break-out or puzzle rooms,

  • Glass-blowing,

  • Hatchet throwing – yes really hatchet throwing,

  • and most recently, I saw “human whack-a-mole.” 


I think these are better defined as team fun, but are they really building your team? 

Robbins, an organizational behavior expert, defines an effective team as the ability to,


“work mutually towards a common purpose that provides direction, momentum, and commitment for members”  (Robbins, 2003, p 109).


Therefore, effective team building events utilize “high-interaction group activities to increase trust and openness among team members” (Robbins, p. 259).  This often includes something that:

  • enhances personal communication,

  • improves an understanding of individual needs, motivators & fears,

  • temperament & personality, and

  • problem solving.


Most importantly this ensures the team has a higher degree of trust and psychological safety as a result.  Finally, this degree of truly getting to know team members leads to empathy and an increased willingness to support one another.  Therefore, we see a natural reduction in personal, unhealthy conflict.


Powerful, and often unrecognized human dynamics:

The second and critical part of team building is a debrief with a professional who understands the subtleties of human behavior.  Behavior like:

The Hawthorne effect: feeling of superiority or importance.  We often see this as a result of preferred or even perceived preferred favoritism.  This can also extend into specific roles within a group. 

Social-loafing: not willing to fully commit.  This usually occurs when there are too many people on a specific team or work group.  Others show up leaving the bulk of the work to a few, but no one really ever notices.

Conformity: pressure to make an inappropriate or unsupported decision.  The idea that conformity can be pressured from even a slight glance is often overlooked and ignored.

lessons from the Milgram experiment: a willingness to increase pressure and pain regardless of the response on “orders” of a leader.  The work in Emotional Intelligence (Goleman, 1995); has proven time and time again that people will follow orders from a leader almost without question.  In the absence of any accountability it can be easy to see how this behavior coupled with conformity can shape decisions that may not be in the best interest of the team and/or organization, and so much more.  


Consider how each of these seemingly innocent behaviors might be showing up on your team? 


100 years of research has demonstrated that these behaviors do show up in our teams, and if not recognized and corrected, can wreak havoc.  That havoc has a direct impact on how we interact with one another, feel about each other, and the likelihood to neglect or become and remain actively involved.  If we limit our team building to team fun, we are missing a huge element to support each other, support the team goals, and the organization as a whole.  I am not advocating against team fun. 


Have fun, but do so when its time:

I do believe fun is an important part of working effectively, and important for performing teams.  However, to call it team building in the absence of building trust and support is misleading with consequences.  Bruce Tuckman (1965) introduced the team formation model of: Forming, norming, storming, and performing.  Tuckman’s model posits that teams must go thorough the forming, norming, and storming phases in order to function in a performing manner.  However, there is no guarantee that a team will reach the performing phase.  If we cannot get to the performing phase, team fun is pointless. 


If we limit our team building to team fun, we run the risk of allowing bad team behavior to continue without recognizing it and stopping it.  In turn the poor actors on our team continue with behavior that may be impacting the team and the organization.  What seems like good-natured ribbing to one might actually feel abusive to another.  Since we’re often influenced and motivated by different influences, we may also be leaving half of the team behind…not to mention their best ideas.   


Continue with team fun, we all need a little fun and laughter, but don’t mistake team fun for team building. 


If you're interested in real team building, lets connect!



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