Employees [of Californian home security company] Alarm One Inc. were paddled with rival companies’ yard signs as part of a contest that pitted sales teams against each other, according to court documents.
The winners poked fun at the losers, throwing pies at them, feeding them baby food, making them wear diapers and swatting their buttocks.
The good news: The company got paddled in court when an employee sued them and had to cough up 1.7 million USD.
The bad news: A lot of team building events borrow elements from this approach, setting up artificial (and often meaningless) contests pitting coworkers against each other.
This is especially ironic because companies today want their employees to cooperate more, to work well in teams, to share knowledge and to work to achieve success together. That is why it makes absolutely no sense to send them on trainings that are mainly competitive in nature. Even when these events let people work together in smaller teams, competing against other teams, the focus still ends up being on competition, not cooperation.
There’s a simple reason why these events are almost always competitive: Competition = instant passion. Setting up a competition activates a primal urge in many people to win at all costs, making them very focused and active – which looks great to the organizers.
But there’s a huge downside to this – which means that not only are many team building events a huge waste of time, they can be actively harmful to teams.
Here are the top 5 problems with competitive team building events.
1: Competition does not create an experience of success
Yes, someone will win – most people won’t. If the entire focus is on competing and winning, most participants will leave with a sense that “we weren’t good enough.” That’s not really a good feeling to have created in your employees.
2: Competition brings out the worst in people
CEO Hal Rosenbluth was just about to hire an executive with all the right skills, the right personality and the perfect CV. His interviews went swimmingly and he’d said all the right things, but something about him still made Rosenbluth nervous, though he couldn’t put his finger on just what it was.
Rosenbluth’s solution was genius: He invited the applicant to a company softball game, and here the man showed his true colors. He was competitive to the point of being manic. He abused and yelled at both the opponents and his own team. He cursed the referees and kicked up dirt like a major league player.
And he did not get the job.
(From Hal Rosenbluth’s excellent book The Customer Comes Second).
Competing brings out the inner jerk in some people, making them manic and abusive. Some even try cheating in order to win. This is not exactly a great basis for future cooperation – it might be better if people left the event liking each other more than before because they’d seen each other at their best and most likable.
3: People learn less when they’re competing
Studies show that we learn less when we compete and more when we cooperate. Here’s an example from education:
In a comprehensive review of 245 classroom studies that found a significant achievement difference between cooperative and competitive environments, David Johnson and Roger Johnson of the University of Minnesota reported that 87 percent of the time the advantage went to the cooperative approach.
In visiting classrooms where cooperative learning is used, I like to ask students to describe the experience in their own words. One ten-year-old boy thought a moment and replied, “It’s like you have four brains.” By contrast, a competitor’s single brain often shuts off when given no reason to learn except to triumph over his or her classmates.
- Alfie Kohn (Source)
4: Competition lowers performance
And contrary to what most people think, most of us perform worse when we’re competing. This is especially true for complex tasks that require us to work with and learn from other people.
5: Waste of time
These events focus more on finding and rewarding winners than on making sure that people learn something that might actually be useful at work.
This creates a sense that the events are a waste of time, and employees come to resent them because they keep them from doing real, actual, useful work.
How to do team building that actually builds teams
Here’s what the result of a good team building event should be:
- A deeper understanding between co-workers
- Co-workers like each other better than before
- An experience of having performed well together
- A feeling that “we’re good at what we do”
- An increased desire to cooperate and help each other out
- Specific learnings that can be applied at work
- And maybe most of all: A sense that the event was “time well spent.”
This would actually be easy to achieve. We’d just have to change the event so that:
- The event has common goals for all participants, making people cooperate, not compete
- The event rewards those who get good results but also those who help others get good results and those who help make it a nice experience for everyone
- You take plenty of time to let participants reflect on how the learnings from the event can be applied in their work
You may not get the same hectic moody you get from those intensely competitive events – but that’s actually a good thing.
What you would get instead is an event that is more fun for more people – and much more useful. That has to be a good thing!
What’s the best team building event you’ve ever tried? Or the worst? How did it help or hinder your team? What would your ideal team building event look like?
Please write a comment, I’d like to know what you think.
- My review of Alfie Kohn’s book “No Contest”
- Jerks at work – and how to lose’em
- Why “motivation by pizza” doesn’t work