by Esther Schindler

When Team Bonding Falls Apart

Dec 04, 20063 mins

You want your team to be, well, a team. That means they need to connect with one another on non-work topics as well as on solving business problems together. But what do you do when the team-bonding activities themselves become a divisive issue?

A few months ago, one of the developers in your organization started a regular Friday morning golf outing. George invited everyone whom he believed to be a golfer, and made a point of inviting new hires to join. You travel a lot, so you haven’t been involved, but it seems like a healthy activity for the midsized development team. Until the day that another developer comes into your office to complain.

It seems that, on that particular day, the golf outing lasted until 10:00am and — according to the developer — the golf game was the subject of conversation all day long, precluding any work. She (and here I explicitly point out that the developer is a “she”) considered the outings were a problem. All of the coworkers whom George had invited were male, she pointed out. The result was that the golf outings had negative effects:

  • It created an atmosphere that emphasizes “male” activities, such as sports, sports, Star Wars, and more sports.
  • This “team building” excludes women from the team.
  • There haven’t been any recent “team building” activities that emphasize “everyone is on the team” attitudes; and when activities were held, they were competitive and physical in nature (such as laser tag).
  • Because the golf outing extended into regular office hours, and because it included a large percentage of the employees, the “outing” effectively became a work event.

(And yes, this is based on a true story… not, thankfully, my own.)

What’s your response to Emily? Which of these do you think to yourself, and which do you say aloud? (More than one answer is appropriate here, since there are several issues in play.)

  1. Emily is overreacting. If she wants to join the golf team, she should ask George if she can come along. What’s the big deal?
  2. Emily is correct to be concerned. Everyone is aware that such friendly networking functions also provide additional access to senior management, and that plenty of career opportunities result from such “social” meetings. Thus, women should be explicitly invited. Such social gatherings should be open to all, or they should be discouraged.
  3. You think Emily is wrong, but you don’t want to seem insensitive. You quietly tell George that the golf outings are okay, but should be kept private.
  4. The problem isn’t about gender; it is that it’s an employee-organized event, and George can pick his own friends. The way to address the situation is to create more company-organized team-building activities. (What are your criteria for defining these activities? Are they, indeed, competitive?)
  5. If it’s after hours, it simply isn’t my concern as a manager.
  6. Something else? What?

This does, of course, have a side issue: the notion of whether you should partipate in “team building” activities because of the career opportunities rather than due to a personal interest. And whether you should advise those whom you mentor to do so. That is, if you hate golf, do you play anyway — because it’s a way to schmooze with company executives?