The worst team-building experience you’ve ever had

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Worst team building

In grade school, at summer camp, as a new college student or even in a corporate workplace, you’ve probably been forced to play some sort of ice-breaker game. Maybe you had to find out five facts about the person sitting next to you, or you had to get into a group and work on a puzzle. Teachers, managers and other group leaders often look for activities to make people in the room mingle and bond with each other. The activities can be annoying, but the goal is admirable. After all, making friends with the people around you can make your school days or workdays much easier.

Sometimes the execution of these activities, however, is not successful.

“It’s all about the point of the activity,” says Ed Muzio, author of “Make Work Great.” “Good activities engage people in active learning. Bad activities keep people busy.”

A bad team-building activity is a waste of time, because it doesn’t help you achieve anything.

“Terrible team-building sessions leave people in their chairs. Bad team-building sessions get people out of their chairs just to keep them awake. Good team-building sessions get people out of their chairs to learn something they couldn’t have learned sitting down,” Muzio says.

With that in mind, these workers share the worst team-building experiences of their career:

Not bonding in nature
“One of my clients, a research analyst, and the other members of his team were invited by their boss, the portfolio manager, for a half-day team-building exercise. Their boss lived in a rural suburban community not far from a state park with hiking trails and a conference center. The members of the team all commuted together on this rainy morning and all expressed dissatisfaction in having to accommodate their boss’s interests (he was an avid hiker), the inconvenience of the reverse commute, the weather and the fact that none of them had the right gear for hiking. Adding insult to injury, he picked them up at the train station in his large, brand-new, high-end BMW.

“The team-building exercise began with a seven-mile hike and everyone — except their boss, who was dressed head to toe in Gore-Tex — got soaked from the downpour. By the time they returned to the conference center, they were chilled and uncomfortable. Not a good mood to begin this sort of bonding exercise. As a postscript, two of the team members got poison ivy. An alternative: Their boss should have surveyed the team members, and based upon their feedback, he should have offered several options for events and locations rather than insisting that his team join him in the country.” — Roy Cohen, author of “The Wall Street Professional’s Survival Guide”

Ropes-course chaos
“I was asked to help a nonprofit during their team-building day. The morning was a typical ‘ropes’ course at a local college. The staff were a very unhappy lot, and they showed it by showing up for the day without their ‘game face on.’ About half the women showed up in high heels, short skirts and elaborate hairdos so they couldn’t participate. The day was a disaster, and by the time the games were over and our ‘working’ session was to start, they were in foul moods. It was an extreme example of how team-building events are mistaken for the long, hard work of actually building a team with shared goals and responsibilities.” — Rebecca Staton-Reinstein, president of Advantage Leadership Inc.

Avoiding the issues
“My worst experience was at a job where the leadership was seriously lacking, [and] consultants had been brought in to see what was going on. One of the consultant’s suggestions was that team building needed to occur, because there were clearly issues between staff at the higher levels. This was very true, and I think [that] had the teambuilding been done differently, we may have actually had a breakthrough.

“Unfortunately, rather than trying to lead team building herself, the executive director brought in another consultant to do team building. He had us play a lot of games, which were fun, but we never actually ‘talked it out’ after the games to help deal with the issues that were causing so many problems. And some of the games actually reiterated the super-negative culture that had been developed at this facility, but they were never addressed. I actually left the team-building day saying, ‘Things are never going to change here,’ which was too bad, because on paper it had been my dream job. The team-building day was actually one of the reasons why I made my decision to leave my position about two months later.” – Laura Williams

Between a stone and a hard place
“Several years ago, when I worked for a professional nonprofit association, there was a lot of discord between several staff members. So to try to resolve the ‘hardship,’ as the executive director called it, she put everyone in a room and pulled out her ‘sacred stone.’ She asked everyone to hold the stone and to express their difficulties to the stone. Then, she said, the stone would release our hardship.

“Needless to say, a few of us said no, we wouldn’t. So we had to go back to work.” — Shannon Cherry,

Paintball panic
The organizers split us into two groups, discussed the objective (capture the other team’s flag without getting hit by a paintball), then gave each player a pair of safety goggles and a loaded paintball gun. Within five seconds, someone’s gun misfired, sending a projectile straight to the divisional manager’s crotch, who then retired back to the bus for the rest of the afternoon. I personally shot my supervisor in the back — resulting in a black-and-blue welt the size of a baseball — and you could hear screams of pain and, ‘Please don’t shoot me’ throughout the park. The bus ride home was silent.” — Peter Brooks

Have you had a bad team-building experience? Tell us about it in the comments section.

  1. The paintball story is my favorite — though all of these sound pretty awful. Thanks for the laugh! Team building activities really CAN be constructive and helpful…but only when done in the right (and painless) way. 

  2. Good team building is customized to meet the goals and objectives of the client.   The situations described above are great examples but there are so many more examples of good team building that you overlook by creating a title to attract readers.  Feel free to reach out to me for examples of similar activities, done properly and debriefed that encourage the staff and build morale and company loyalty.  

  3. At one job, which was generally a pretty good place to work before this, we had an all region meeting, which always meant obnoxious teambuilding exercises. The exercises themselves weren’t awful (considering I hate hate hate teambuilders, icebreakers, and the like), but afterwards they informed us that due to restructuring we all had to reapply for our jobs…and not all of us would get them. We couldn’t believe they made us play foolish games all day, then dropped that bomb. Morale never recovered.

  4. One job decided to use a personality assessment to “help us work better together.” What came out of it? Only 3 of us were in one category, while all the others were bunched into 2 others. The Red group looked down on the Blue group, and everybody expressed pity and contempt for the White group (the one with the 3 people in it.) Rather than helping us work better together, the exercise just created another division among us. A slightly dysfunctional office regressed into high school cliques, with the sanction of leadership. Ironically, the 3 pitied people thought the entire thing was a joke and didn’t care what the majority thought.

  5. @CareerBuilder we had to stand nose to nose and compliment each other for five minutes, only responding with thank you #Awkward

  6. We were doing that old school team confidence builder. Fall backwards off a ladder and your team catches you. All I can say is they kept my feet in the air while they dropped my head and shoulders on the ground. I’ve been wary of teams ever since.

  7. For a team building day which also was supposed to double as a give back to the community day for Martin Luther King day in-service, our manager decided to have us volunteer a therapeutic horse farm for kids. Instead of working with the horses and/or kids like we were told we would be doing, they decided to have the men (2 black men, I Korean, and a gay man) clean out the horse stables; while the women did such things clean the horse brushes and take a tour of the farm. Needless to say team buildings were canceled or rarely attended by men after that.

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