Team-Building Activities Don’t Work—Here’s What to Do Instead


Too often, business leaders treat team-building like an offsite activity.

They use contrived exercises to force employees to rely on each other for support. In reality, though, team-building takes place every day in real time.

So how can business leaders cultivate a culture of trust and teamwork—without putting employees into manufactured (and irrelevant) scenarios?

Creating a Culture of Trust Through Team-Building

The Office Environment

Consider the physical layout of your workspace. When employees stay sequestered behind closed doors, teamwork is likely to suffer. Having collaborative spaces can facilitate interaction—but, on the opposite end of the spectrum, an open office plan probably isn’t the best option, either. Most employees have at least a few assignments that require them to work independently, and shared workspaces are rife with distractions.

Companies can offer the best of both worlds by creating quiet areas where people can work individually. Some research also shows teamwork improves when there’s a common break room where coworkers can eat and socialize together.

Employee Recognition

How are employees rewarded for their work? If business leaders focus on individual recognition, rather than collaborative efforts, employees might feel the need to compete with each other. This internal rivalry can be destructive. It pits people against each other and introduces tension to the office.

In addition to celebrating individual goals, like closing on a sale, take the time to recognize big-picture objectives that involve the whole department—like exceeding the quarterly revenue goals, for example.

Interactions With Management

Everyone at an organization is in the same race together. To reinforce this idea, managers, directors, and executives need to lead by example. If you’re in a leadership role, make your efforts visible. Work late when you ask your direct reports to put in overtime. Do a little grunt work to show that you’re not above anyone’s station. When you encounter a coworker, personally greet them and be friendly.

If your employees feel like you’re genuinely invested in the company and the people who work there, it will help you establish reciprocity.

Organizational Structure

Departments don’t work in a vacuum. For instance, during a digital transformation, the IT department might help other teams leverage new technology, like data analytics and machine learning. In this case, every department from HR to marketing can be affected.

When projects overlap between departments, you have an opportunity to build camaraderie. Emphasize your organization’s shared objectives by developing a functional organizational structure and putting team leads in direct communication with each other. Invite team leads and department heads to bi-weekly meetings so they can discuss their initiatives and pain points. During these updates, they’re likely to find ways they can work together.

Shared Mission

A team works together to achieve a common goal. Consequently, if it’s unclear what unites an organization, teamwork will suffer. It’s important for business leaders to create a shared company vision. What’s your company’s core mission statement? How does each individual employee contribute to it?

Have ongoing discussions about your company’s guiding principles. Industry disrupters, like new regulations or technology, can make an organization change direction. As your organization evolves, managers and executive leadership need to communicate those developments to their employees.

How to Help Your Team Do Their Best Work

A business leader needs to support their team—which means offering resources and removing barriers. This might look like:

  • Ensuring employees have the resources they need to perform their job responsibilities. This includes providing ongoing training and assigning the appropriate material assets, like a computer with adequate processing power. 
  • Identifying bottlenecks and removing them. For instance, another department’s practices might delay a cross-functional process; working together to remove or modify those practices can help improve workflow.
  • Making the office environment accessible and comfortable.
  • Providing ongoing feedback—both positive and course-correcting.

Open Communication

To ensure employees get what they need, an organization should have open communication channels. When employees feel like they can talk to their managers, it builds a sense of trust—particularly if managers are responsive and incorporate those suggestions into their business practice. One Gallup study also shows managers who received feedback on their performance demonstrated 8.9% more profitability post-intervention. Soliciting feedback from your team is a win-win.

Consider the mechanism by which employees can provide input, e.g. face-to-face, over the phone, or via email. Some individuals feel more comfortable communicating their ideas in writing (or vice-versa). If you’re in a leadership position, you should do your best to accommodate your team’s preferences. Treating each person as an individual will make them feel appreciated and reinforces your overall team-building efforts.

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, author Paul J. Zak covers the critical role that trust plays in boosting teamwork. He writes: “Two decades of research shows that leaders can boost performance by understanding exactly why we do (or don’t) trust the people we work with.” Trusting each other, Zak says, “activates brain systems that motivate teamwork, which, in the best case, makes work feel like play.”

Building a foundation of trust takes time, but following these steps will improve your company’s employee engagement and retention. Both are critical in an environment where the job market is extremely competitive and top talent is in short supply.

Can humor improve team-building and employee satisfaction? INSEAD explains the unexpected benefits of using sarcasm at work. 


About the Author

Lin Grensing-Pophal is a freelance business journalist and content marketer with a wide range of writing credits for various business and trade publications. In addition to freelance writing for trade journals and publications, Grensing-Pophal does content marketing for Fortune 500 companies, small businesses and individuals on a wide range of subjects, from human resource management and employee relations, to marketing, technology, healthcare industry trends and more.