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Team Building Activities

Team Building is about Discovering How People Think and Work

Heng Kai, 2004

Ed: James Neill


Team Building is about Discovering How People Think and Work


Team building programmes around the world are a growing phenomena.  It is a common practice for most organisations today to hold team building events at either department level or company level at least once a year.

One of the main reason is that most managers today believe team building events are able to bond organisation members together both horizontally (between subordinates) or vertically (between managers and subordinates).  However, what is lacking is the understanding of the concept of team building.  As a result, team building events today often end up to become merely a trip to the park, a one night stay at a posh resort or an afternoon of games.  The outcome has left much to be desired unless the concept of team building is well understood which is essential to maximise the benefits for the time spent.

Robbins and Coulter (1999) in their book "Management" defines team building as "interaction among members of work teams to learn how each member thinks and works".  Unfortunately, in today's practice, the definition of team building has been misinterpreted.  The key phrase here is "to learn how each member thinks and works". 

Team building events therefore should go beyond the idea of a "trip to the park".  They have to allow for learning about how each member of the team thinks and works in relation to the workplace.  On the contrary however, most team building practitioners today are commonly using so-called team-building events to simply ‘encourage’ people to work together, not learn about how each team member actually thinks and behaves.  The common message carried behind the way most team-building games is "you all must learn to work as a team".  The facilitator needs to do more - they need to provide structured opportunity for helping team members learn more deeply about how each person operates in the workplace.

In the Malaysian context, the wrong perception of team building has come about, I believe, due to many team building practitioners running team building event army-style.  Although the games and activities used may have been modified to suit civilians, the methodology behind the training is still very much army-styled. 

I was in the army and I know what team building army-style is about.  You are made to work as a team.  If you do not, the whole team suffers.  Take a point in case – everyone has to fall- in sharp at 6.30am for physical training everyday.  If one person is late, the rest of the platoon members will have to endure physical punishment together with him.  You see, in the army, you are made to work as a team.  It is a necessity to survive, it is not a choice.  However, this is not true in the corporate world.  Not all organisations are made in such a way that if they don’t work as a team, the organisation will not survive.  In fact, some organisations promote individualism.  AT&T, Ford, Motorola, Google and other large U.S.-based companies are examples of companies that encourage individual achievement and recognition (Robbins, 2001).

Adults do not just learn to work as a team from a one or two day event.  So, why don't people just ‘learn to work as a team’ by just attending a few games and activities as part a team building event?

Barrier 1. Adults are more complicated than children

As adults, we are much more complicated now as we have been when we were much younger.  Lets’ compare to when we were much younger, say 13 years old.  In those days, people generally  easily acquainted with classmates, worked and played with them.  On average, special efforts to "learn to work with others" are unnecessary because children live and grow together.  As we get older, we learn to become more sceptical of others.  This is often culturally reinforced.  We are no longer as naïve in our ideas about other people.  Combined with the rapid shifts in workplace environments and personnel, this eventually makes it harder to work as a team. 

Barrier 2. Adults are more inflexible in accepting changes and other people’s values

As we grow, we become more inflexible and intolerable of others.  We may not accept others’ views and opinions and therefore, may not so easily change ourselves so that we may be able to work with others.  However, we may try to compromise as we work along.  Therefore, by just asking adults to work together is not the answer.  Working together takes time, it takes effort.  Some people may not even gel together after years of being in the same office.  It does not help by asking people to work as a team; they have to experience and understand other people's ways of working and being in order to really believe in their capacity to find effective ways of working together.

Barrier 3. Is teaching team building really relevant to workers' needs?

Adults are able to learn things if it is applicable to them.  Teach someone how to use the Personal Digital Assistant and he/she will probably learn it in a few minutes if he owns one.  However, teach him how to do some mathematics problem s/he will probably forgets it in a few hours if he does not need to use it.  If it’s applicable, is memorable.  Therefore, adults do not need to learn to work as a team.  They have already obtained the skills of working with others.  There are exceptions to this of course!  If the job determines that they have to work together, they will.  Therefore, it is often redundant or unnecessary to teach people ‘how to work as a team’.  If they do not, simply speak, they have decided not to and they will abide with that decision.  You can’t teach an old dog a new trick – so to speak.  Therefore, team building events is not the answer to all failing teams. 

To make team building events practical and beneficial, consider the following:

Solution 1. Allow for interaction that leads to understanding

A ‘trip to the park’ will not 'just work'.  It may promote interaction, everyone may have a good laugh, but it is not structured.  The best they could probably remember is that they ‘had a good time’. It has to be structured.  You must be able to lay out your goals.  At which level of interaction are they at? To which level do you want them to interact?  Bear in mind the purpose of interaction is to create understanding, and understanding that will help each other to know where they come from and why do they act in a certain manner.  Useful information could be gained e.g. the persons family background, how was s/he brought up, what are his pastimes, who are his friends.  All this may just surface from the interaction, but generally needs more structured prompting.  

Solution 2. Provide behavioral opportunities for revealing underlying thinking and behavior patterns

Initiative games are best used to see how we behave.  A problem is given to a team to solve.  Each of the team members may have different ways of solving the puzzle.  By allowing team members to understand why Mr. A or Mr. B and Mr. C makes certain decision will enable the team mates to understand better why Mr. A makes such decisions in the workplace.  The process is crucial, not the ends…it is the means.  During one raft building activity, one facilitator shouted to the team ‘If your raft sinks will just show that you are unable to work as a team’.  My friends, it is not important if the raft sinks or not, most importantly, how each of them makes decision and reacted in front of the eyes of their team mates is the most important!  


Team building events are meant to take people away from the office and put them in an unfamiliar place.  It is where people are most likely dressed informally and therefore, behave differently.  At these occasions, positions in office are often forgotten and the true self thus appears.  As one participant once said ‘we tend to put down our guard and behave differently’.  Not only do we act differently, we say different things too.  The way we act and behave out of the formal work setting is often our more true self.  Team building experiences should help to show our true ‘human’ nature.  We may start to notice that Director A has a great sense of humour – a real joker.  Or the HR director has a kind, caring soul.  Knowing each others’ true attitude and behaviour will often change our perceptions of fellow workers.  The next time you meet Director A along the office corridor, you would probably give him a cheeky smile – a reminder of what happened at the team building event the other day!

Team building events will therefore be more successful when there is a structured programme which will allow specific objectives to be met.  Activities that allow opportunity to reveal the way we think, make decisions and react will create better and further understanding of work mates.  Finally, a team building event that allow each others’ attitudes and behaviour to surface creates better relationships in the office.  However, managers are reminded that team building does not just happen in one day or two days, it has to happen in the workplace every day and it takes time.  Managers must promote interaction in the workplace among work mates to learn how each member thinks and works, to allow team building to work.  This might also involve several different training methods including class room training, role plays, profiling tests and many others.  Managers need to contribute to the process rather than being hopeful for the best results from one or two team building events.  Based on the understanding of the principles of team building as cited above, it is hoped that managers will be able to make a better decision when organising team building events.


Robbins & Coulter (1999).  Management (6th ed).  Prentice Hall: USA.