Corporate Team-Building Activities - More Pablum Than Panacea

When Ararat teaches executives and managers how "team work" is one of the worst buzzwords they can use, they are at first shocked and then enlightened when we explain the reasons why the vast majority of their workforce associates "team work" with several negative sociological and psychology connotations and memories.

Solving Team Work Problems Isn't Child's Play - So Why The Games?

Team work problems are endemic to any business with more than a handful of employees. Before we consider how to 'cure' problems with team work, we need to diagnose what causes a lack of team work in the first place.

Dr. Kevin Orieux
Author: Survive, Thrive or Dive


When business leaders search for solutions for creating team work, they often focus on the wrong approach to solving their problems with employee conflict. Most of the team building activities that are touted by "coaches" don't create solutions, they merely entertain employees for a day at the company's expense. Employee conflict is usually rooted in conditioned sociological responses and dysfunctinoal mindsets. Childish team building activities typically focus on symptoms rather than the causes. This is like taking Tylenol for an abscessed tooth - it only masks the problem, rather than cure it. Addressing the symptoms rather than the actual disease always results in short term relief while the underlying conflicts are left unaddressed, and grow worse. This is why team building activities is a waste of the company's money, time and resources.

The real solution for creating true team work, or synergy, begins to occur as soon as business owners and managers learn to understand the contributing sociological and psychological root causes that prevent a company's employees from working in harmony to achieve the company's goals and vision. To achieve sustainable change management, Dr. Orieux and his associates at Ararat Consulting focus on helping business leaders understand the why behind toxic employee attitudes and employee conflict, rather than just talking about what to do and how to do it, because just like the practice of medicine, until one understands why the (corporate) body is unhealthy, the problems can't be cured.

The most common complaint of business owners is the frustration they experience as it relates to getting people to get along. When everyone gets along and works together harmoniously, work gets done, people have fun, and profits roll in. It's easy in the beginning for a small business with only a handful of employees to "play nice on the playground" and work together. But when a company starts to grow, then sociological reality sets in, namely, the larger the workforce, the higher the potential for interpersonal conflict, stress and aggravation. When workplace conflict and unhealthy interpersonal dynamics reach a certain level, business leaders start to see certain toxic effects in the workplace environment. Employee engagement suffers, productivity suffers and as a result, profitability suffers.

It happens to virtually every business, especially if the business is growing. In other words, if it's happening to you in your business, then you're in good company.

Not every business is the same, but conceptually, the problems related to a lack of team work fall into two broad categories which for simplicity sake, we will describe as being either Small Businesses and Larger Businesses. Let's look at the problems whereby workforces don't practice team work from both perspectives:

SMALL BUSINESSES: the vast majority of small business owners are extremely professional at what they do, but when it comes to expanding their business and bringing together additional people to fill in the voids for the tasks they don't know how to do, this is when the challenges start to arise. Small businesses typically can't afford to have fully staffed departments in areas such as sales, marketing, customer service, accounting and human resources. When an individual strikes out on their own to start their own business, they will typically subcontract out certain services. This "Out of Sight = Out of Mind" management model is workable, because in the early stages "out of sight" means the business owner farms out certain tasks to other professionals and subcontractors "off site" so the business owner still gets to spend the majority of their time doing what they're good at. The "out of mind" part of the equation means they get to spend their time "minding their own business" which is the pursuing the specific skill or service that they were trained to do, the very thing that makes them the professionals they are.

This challenges related to "team work" in this small business model is especially applicable of those who have studied for years in college or university to achieve some sort of white collar credentials, whether they're accountants, doctors, computer techs or engineers. When the business is small, managing a few people is easy, but as the business grows, hiring more people equates to more interpersonal conflict - it's just human nature. When Ararat asks these small business owners to describe their challenges with achieving "team work" the business owner typically has a story that sounds like this:

When I first started this company things were really straight forward. I dealt with clients one on one, found out where they needed my help, provided that help, and at the end of the day they were happy and I was happy. I was doing what I had always dreamed of doing and I was my own boss - it was heaven. Then things started to get so busy that I had to hire additional people (eg: other professionals, another admin person, an accountant, a webmaster-IT person, sales reps, a graphic designer) to do things I either wasn't trained to do, or the things I no longer had time to do. Over time, I was spending less and less of my time doing what I was good at, because I was spending more and more of my time as a referee, or some sort of kindergarten teacher or playground monitor. I found myself dealing with people's petty problems. People were squabbling with each other or else complaining about one another. As the boss, everyone came to my office and expected me to make decisions about what they needed, rather than them thinking about the company needed. That's when things started to be a lot less fun and what I had once thought of as heaven began to feel like hell.

LARGER BUSINESSES: once a company passes the threshold of fifty employees, the human dynamic and corporate culture changes drastically. It is no longer conceivable nor feasible for the company owner to maintain personal contact, oversee and manage that volume of people. Duties that were once handled by a key individual evolve into entire departments, such as shipping/receiving, marketing, accounts receivable, human resources, janitorial and maintenance. The company may now be housed in several different locations over a widespread geographic area, creating even greater challenges to having everyone work together without the problems associated with miscommunication. In larger businesses with multiple departments, the business owner now hires specific people to act as "managers" with the expectation that these employees will do exactly what their job title suggests: manage their respective departments or even branch offices.

Except people are still people, so the larger the department, or the greater the number of departments or the more widespread the company becomes through different geographic locations, the more likely there will be interpersonal conflict. Making things worse, when a company has a entire separate strata or employment level called "Management" then certain dysfunctional aspects of human nature become manifested whenever you have a whole group of "managers" who are all trying to look good in the owner's mind. These dysfunctional behaviors include interdepartmental competition, unhealthy ambition, personal agendas, power-tripping, etc, etc, etc. With small businesses where the owner is the one and only manager, she is not going to compete with herself, power-trip with herself, or sabotage herself. When the owner of the company is still very much "hands on" because the company is small, whatever ambition he has is going to healthy because its focus is on health of the company first and foremost, not focused on him screwing people over to look good in the eyes of the boss (because he *is* the boss).

In essence, a larger company can begin to act like several separate companies. Whatever challenges a small company may have, a larger company has those same challenges except these challenges expand in multiples. With larger companies, the challenges of creating "team work" may affect one department, several departments under one roof, or multiple departments spread out over multiple branch offices. Additionally, there may be a lack of "team work" on the part of members of the management strata itself, as individual ambitions may sabotage the contributions of one department or location in order for the ambitious manager to achieve their personal agenda or goals, even if their efforts to achieve their goals are counterproductive to the health and welfare of the larger business as a whole.

The ways in which interactions in the workplace manifest a lack of team work in a corporate culture are many and varied. But clinically speaking, these manifestations are only the symptoms, not the cause. To cure a problem you have to address the root cause, not the symptoms. Sociologists and corporate psychologists agree that there is one single underlying cause for a lack of team work. This causative reason is so foundational to the problem that unless it is recognized and addressed first, then any efforts a business makes to create team work, will fail.

BOTTOM LINE: before you invest a lot of your company's time, resources and finances into attempting to create "team" and solving the problems of dysfunctional employee behavior, the more pragmatic strategy would be to first invest some time to discover, sociologically and psychologically, what is required to eliminate the underlying etiological barriers that prevent ALL people from working as productively and synergistically as they could.