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Why Your Company May Be Failing at Team Building

Why Your Company May Be Failing at Team Building

By Les Pardew, founder of Mystery Escape Room.

Many businesses are struggling to find the best way to move forward as some employees return to the workplace while others will continue to work at home or a combination of both. A Gartner Inc. survey finds one-third of business leaders are most concerned with maintaining corporate culture while 13% worry about providing parity between the remote and in-office workers.

The survey finds employers are still concerned about the best way to manage a hybrid workforce. However, only 13% of business leaders voiced concerns over sustaining productivity. Still, 61% of businesses are implementing more frequent manager-employee check-ins, and 29% report not taking any measures to track productivity remotely.

Many companies have been using online activities to avoid failing at team building and keep their teams working together. A Utah insurance company recently used The Outbreak Challenge, a one-month fitness, and relationship-building exercise. The people at put together a list of 31 online activities (including some free ones) to help strengthen company relationships. I’m also familiar with other companies and families connecting by playing JackBox Games; an inexpensive option with many game options.

Escape Room Research

An unlikely source of research about corporate team performances is underway at my company Mystery Escape Room. This online or in-person experience brings teams together to discover clues and find the way out. We started the research thinking it would help in team building, promote teamwork and identify leaders. We could never have predicted what we would find.

Our research is finding most corporate places fail at team building. Corporate teams are some of the worst performers at working together and getting a task done.

The research involving 5,424 escape experiences shows that strangers are the most likely to be a top 2% team—and corporate teams were the least able to reach this elite status. Nearly a quarter-million people, including more than half of the Fortune 100 companies, have participated in escape rooms to develop leadership, teamwork, and communication among employees.

Mystery Escape Room is partnering with Carnegie Mellon University to create the world’s largest database on team performance research. To understand what elements help the most in successful team building, we broke down the groups based on the following criteria:

  • Corporate groups are teams from a company or organization
  • Friends are groups who know each other but do not work together
  • Family groups are from the same family
  • Strangers are groups who meet for the first time just before the event

According to our research, a group of strangers was four times more likely to reach the top 2% than a corporate team. They were also twice as likely to be in the top 2% than a group of friends.

Why Strangers Do Better Than Co-Workers

Judging the teams involves several categories, including communication, motivation, and organization. The following is a breakdown of some of the results:

The top 2% have less internal conflict at 8%, while the overall average is 11%. The bottom is at 14%.

We see significantly higher levels of internal communication in the top 2%. The team members who win and solve the rooms dare to ask. They ask other team members and their room guides. They don’t hold back. It brings to mind the words of Confucius, “The man who asks a question is a fool for a minute, the man who does not ask is a fool for life.”

Team motivation to work together is much higher in the top 2%.

The top teams also have higher levels of self-organization.

The top teams waste very little time. The bottom teams take nearly six times longer than the best teams and more than double the time of the mid-ranked teams. The top 2% complete the task on average in 41.6 minutes; the bottom 2% take 223.79 minutes; the overall average completion time is 75.83 minutes.

why team building fails (time wasted by different team members)

The top teams also have more fun than other teams.

why team building fails (team members fun personalities data)

The escape rooms are fun, but they also can make a profound difference in helping teams find ways to succeed and identify tactics that lead to failure. We discovered some significant differences in the teams’ collective personalities.

why team building fails

Key Things to Do

Employers should take note of the characteristics of the members of the top 2% teams vs. the bottom 2%. Facilitators rate teams in the following categories: Open/Closed; Focused/Scattered; Aggressive/Passive; Active/Reactive; Deductive/Creative; and Independent/Dependent.

  • The top 2% have less internal conflict, better communication, cooperation, and self-organization, waste the least amount of time, and have the most fun.
  • The leaders in the top 2% are more open, focused, aggressive, and independent; leaders in the bottom 2% are more closed, scattered, reactive and dependent.

All of the teams seem to be open, but the top teams are even more open. The best group is more focused by a significant amount. The difference between aggressive or passive is a little tighter, but the most notable gap is between active versus reactive and independent versus dependent. They are closest in the deductive versus creative area.

The Takeaway

These findings showcase the need for corporate leaders to create a safe environment where everyone will want to participate in projects without the fear of appearing stupid or making a mistake. Strangers are the most likely to get the assignment done with time to spare because they are less intimidated about their instructions or what others think.

Google’s study on psychological safety shows us just how vital this type of safety is for high-performing teams. Creating a psychologically safe work environment means team members feel comfortable speaking up, proposing creative ideas, and advocating for more change without the fear of feeling insecure or embarrassed, penalized or punished.

Learning from Children

I recently wrote about how fear is the most significant factor preventing people from participating in a group and making companies fail at team building. This type of fear was clear when we watched a group of 9- to 10-year-old children navigate one of our most challenging escape room adventures. The room had a success rate of 10%, meaning 90% of participants failed even to finish. Hundreds of adults had tried and failed to escape the room. These results contrast with the group of children who succeeded and came close to setting a record time.

We discovered the children lacked the knowledge and experience of the adult teams, but they made up for it in experimentation and willingness to try anything. Testing takes place for all ideas. They make no distinction between logical ideas and odd ones. They tried them all, and they attempted them almost as fast as they thought of them. Even they did not care whose idea it is or even if the idea made any sense. They just kept trying until something worked and then moved on to the next thing. There was no hesitation, no fear of trying.

These children offer an important lesson about why team building fails and how to do team problem-solving. Social fear is a major contributor to hesitation in expressing ideas, but children do not have this fear. They say whatever comes to their mind. If we want to improve a team’s ability to solve problems, we need to learn from children.

One Company’s Experience

So can old dogs (adults) learn new tricks? Here is the feedback I received from an executive at a major engineering company with his sales team: “I found the exercise not only challenging but revealing about our team members. All of the aspects have parallels to the jobs each of our folks does.”

The executive said he would continue to use team-building activities to help strengthen sales and create a team and individual development plans.

Final Thoughts

So how can you avoid failing at team building? Build trust with your team. However, this type of trust is challenging when you’re not all physically together. Leaders will need to think extra hard to ensure remote workers don’t feel left out of meaningful conversations or decision-making, which can erode trust.

The consultants at Odyssey Teams support the importance of team-building activities to help build that trust: “An interactive team-building activity helps every individual align goals, collaborate, and perceive themselves from a bigger and better point of view. Apart from this, team-building activities also teach team conflict management. A united team works towards a common objective, thereby attaining the goals quickly and efficiently.”

Even though we are entering a brave new world of where and how people work, opportunities are available for your employees to participate in team-building exercises that can either be online, in-person, or both. Whether we like it or not, things have changed. Executives should consider exploring new ways to help their employees to reach their full potential. The research is overwhelming that team-building activities can make a big difference.


Les Pardew is the founder of Mystery Escape Room and has designed more than 40 escape rooms that have attracted more than a quarter-million people, including participants from more than half of the Top Fortune 100 Companies  He also developed more 150 video games and authored 16 books on art, design, and business.


Smart Hustle Resources:

Best Practices To Get The Most Out Of Your Team Building Activities

2 Essential Factors You Need to Know for Building Your Power Team

3 Team-Building Tips to Create an Active and Innovative Team

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Source: Smart Hustle


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