Why corporate team-building events don’t work

In the book “Leaders Eat Last” by Simon Sinek, Chapter 20: Friends Matter, he proposes that when people come together outside of work contexts, they build friendships and when friendships are built, cooperation happens, even if they come from different political parties.

Many organisations engage vendors to conduct team-building activities for their employees and hope that in this once-a-year session (it could be 2, 3 or 4 times a year), there is greater cohesion within the organisation, colleagues start to work collaboratively with another.

Reflecting on my own experience, the closest friends I’ve made at my work places did not come from these team-building activities but from having lunch together. Organisations recognise this and usually plan for groups to be jumbled up during the team-building sessions, only to have the members retreating to their usual cliques during free times.

While I do think large scale get togethers as an organisation do help forge an identity, it certainly cannot be the sole driver for building a trusting culture within the organisation.

The central theme of the book is the concept of a Circle of Safety, a community that we can be ourselves, we feel belonged, we have ownership and we protect the interests of others. This Circle of Safety can range in sizes but Dunbar’s number suggests that we can comfortably maintain 150 relationships.

We’ve all experienced trying to organise a meet up with our friends. To find a common schedule among just 8 people already seems close to impossible, what more to say 150.

In the movie “300”, the strength of the Spartans lie in their interlocking shields.

Integrating this idea with the Circle of Safety, perhaps a more effective way of building a trusting organisation is to create Interlocking Circles of Safety.

The keyword lies in “Interlocking”. It gives room for smaller Circles of Safety to be formed, within which there are members who reside in more than 1 Circle, giving rise to the Interlocking effect. These are usually the members who exhibit a strong “I” trait in the DISC personality test, they navigate relationships well and often serve as a friendship broker between the Circles that he is a member of.

Circles of Safety can only interlock when Circles of Safety exist.

When corporate team-building events seem futile, it is likely that the organisation lacks these smaller Circles of Safety and the organisation looks to the team-building event to form a giant Circle of Safety. The function of corporate team-building events should be to provide the opportunity to start networking between the various Circles of Safety.

Instead, organisations should look at creating smaller Circles of Safety first. To build Circles of Safety requires more than what I’m going to suggest, but for a start, these 3 steps can help generate easy wins and build Circles of Safety organically.

#1 Create an environment that facilities interaction

These can come in the form eating spaces or play areas. We usually have these at our work places, but having these spaces doesn’t mean people will go there. This is usually where organisations stop their efforts to facilitate interaction. Which brings me to

#2 Create time for interaction

Just because we have a basketball court, doesn’t mean it will be utilised, especially if everyone is so busy. To encourage that, organisations can afford to declare a weekly 1 hour slot where different groups can come together to play.

As shared earlier, most of my Circles of Safety are also those that I have lunch with, which suggests that frequency and consistency of interaction is better than one-off intense interaction (Think corporate team-building day or monthly soccer sessions).

I love sports, but I realise interaction within sporting activities are usually limited. During soccer sessions, half the time I’m runing for the ball, the other, I’m catching my breath, there’s no room for conversation.

Where possible, when planning for activities, favour activities that promote conversation and perspective over activities that generate little to no conversation.

Even if organisations have these 2 in place, the 3rd would be a catalyst to get things going.

#3 Normalise interactions

Management needs to make time to engage in these activities or utilise these play spaces. They need to demonstrate to employees that it is ok to play. They need to inspire confidence in employees that management does not view it as skiving. Making time to engage in activity during the opening ceremony of a particular play space isn’t going to drive the message that it is normal to utilise the play space. Again, it’s about consistency.


Over time, this will give rise to many small Circles of Safety because people are interacting.

Cover Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

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