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When teambuilding goes wrong


Most team away days are well thought out and planned...or are they? Heather Townsend outlines some common teambuilding pitfalls for trainers.

Do your homework in advance

If you don’t do your research about the team and what is stopping them performing well together, then you could come a cropper. Take for example, a trainer that unwittingly played the ‘red-blue’ game as an ice-breaker with a team of lawyers that was struggling with trust problems between team members. So, what was wrong with this you may ask? The ‘Red-blue’ game will identify problems with trust. However, playing the game introduced extra conflict in the team and only heightened the lack of trust between team members, and the team build went downhill from that point onwards!

Don’t fully timetable the day with activities

People need time to reflect on activities and the introverts in the group (and some of the extroverts!) will need time away to recharge. I’ve been on many team away days where your time as a participant is organised from 09:00 to 21:00 at night, and there is minimal time away from each other. I was once on a team build where the activities had run over during the day. The facilitator only gave us 20 mins to change and get ready for dinner. We were all expected to be present for pre-dinner drinks and participate in all the evening’s ‘fun’ activities. I was so shattered from having to be physically with everyone for over 12 hours, I struggled to contribute fully for the rest of the away day.

Don’t design based on your personal preferences

I was a participant on a three day team build. The team leader wanted to have engaging discussions to gel the team together and use as a base to identify what was really important to the team – and had planned a light structure based around guided discussions. This structure suited her personal preferences perfectly. Half of the team had a Myers-Brigg ‘SJ’ preference and got extremely frustrated that they couldn’t see an obvious route map for the three days, and felt that there was no defined actions coming out of the discussions. Consequently the team didn’t really progress past ‘storming’ and most of the team came away feeling that the three days had been a waste of time. The moral of the story is to design based on whole team preferences rather than your own personal preferences.

Don’t exclude team members

When team building you need to consider all the team members learning styles, general preferences and physical limitations. Having had two children I have been participating on ‘outward bound’ style team building exercises whilst pregnant. Well, when I say participating I mean watching from the sidelines and getting pretty bored... On the occasion when you want everyone to feel included, you need to make doubly sure your design for the day allows everyone to contribute.

Get organisational buy-in

Often teams are not masters of their own destiny. You need to get agreement from the organisation that the team can take the time out for your team build – and the likely benefits of any team build. For example, I was asked to run an away day for the executive office of my old firm. The executive office was composed of PAs of the firm’s ‘board members’. The away day never got off the ground as there was always some spike in workload for the team which caused the away day to be postponed. Ironically the day was all about how they could spread the work more evenly between members!

Make sure all the team are present

If you are running a team away day or team build you need all the team to be present. In one team that I worked in, one of the members was under-performing and there were trust and respect issues between this team member and the rest of the team. For two team away days in a row this team member wasn’t present, consequently this heightened his isolation from the team, and he became known as ‘the absent member’. On these away days the team became united against this team member, rather than sorting out their problems with him. The key element that was preventing this team from really meshing together was this team member and his relationships with the team. As a result, the team away days never addressed and rectified the real issues within the team.

Don’t forget about team members

When working with a team, you need to connect with the whole team. There will be times when team members need some time out from the activities – but don’t forget about them. When researching for this article, I was told about a team build where an exercise had produced very strong emotions. After this exercise one team member dealt with his emotions by going for a run up a nearby mountain. The facilitator forgot about this team member. Hours later a search party was sent out and the unfortunate runner was found safe, but physically and mentally exhausted.

Think about health & safety

If you are working outside on a team build you need to do risk assessments for each planned exercise, and ACT upon the risk assessments. I was a participant on an away day in Dublin. The away day had been planned around a big ‘walk up the mountain’ finale. However, it was extremely windy and the team leader allowed testosterone to take over from his better judgement. The inevitable happened, a very overweight member of the team got blown over, and bounced down the mountain for several metres and was hospitalised needing an operation on a damaged shoulder.

Heather Townsend is the driving force behind The Efficiency CoachTM. She is a highly experienced corporate, career and executive coach with over 10 years experience in many diverse businesses including Tesco, Procter & Gamble, BDO Stoy Hayward LLP. Heather blogs at and can be contacted by email at

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