The 10 Most Horrifying Team Building Exercises

Whether it’s being made to sing on a stage in front of your colleagues to build team spirit, or doing trust falls to improve rapport, most people dread workplace team-building events like little else.  I recently asked readers to tell me about their worst team-building events. Here are the 10 worst events you reported.

1. A slam book for grown-ups

“During a previous job, I worked in a team that was having trouble getting along, so they brought in someone to help us work together as a team. First activity? We had to go around the room and tell each other what we didn’t like about each other. We might have also had to add what we did like about each other but I honestly only remember the criticisms and the people bursting into tears. We went from simply not being able to work together to actively disliking each other in about 30 minutes. Then we ate a boxed lunch and ended the day by filling out personality tests.”

2. Nearly trampled by a horse

“My team did ‘horse whispering,’ where you work with horses to learn about effective communication. One of the horses got over-excited, galloped towards the center of the barn where we were being briefed, and nearly trampled one of my co-workers. It was a bonding experience to a certain extent, but only because we all thought we were going to die.”

3. Lions and monkeys

“We had an exercise run by a consultant who determined what kind of workplace animal each of us was. The boss turned out to be a ‘lion’ (surprise!). I turned out to be a ‘monkey,’ which was great. My coworkers were told that they weren’t allowed to tell me to tidy my workspace because it would stifle my natural simian creativity.”

4. Bathing with your managers

“I work in Japan, and my worst team-building exercise has been taking a bath with my boss and supervisors, although only of the same gender. It’s called ‘naked relationships’ and is thought to build trust. After showering and washing your hair in a group facility, you sit in the bath (which is a natural hot spring) together and talk and bond. The idea is that when you are naked, everyone is equal and you will feel free to discuss things and joke about things that you wouldn’t in the office setting.”

5. Peanut attack

“My office had a ‘trust’ activity that required people to hold hands and touch each other, done after a snack that had large amounts of peanut products had been consumed. I got in trouble for refusing to participate. Participating would have meant risking death – yes I’m that allergic to peanut products. (In the last 12 years, I’ve been to the ER 7 times for anaphylactic shock, and all involved touching something with peanut residue or being touched by someone who had peanut residue on their hands.)”

6. The temple of the dolphin

“I once had to sit through two hours of a team-building exercise that first involved us all sitting cross-legged on the floor, holding hands with our eyes closed, while the leader described us flying over the ocean into the “temple of the dolphin.” She got very vivid in her description of this imaginary place. It was incredibly difficult not to laugh. After we opened our eyes, we had to watch videos of dolphins and point out the leadership skills they were demonstrating. I am not joking. We did that for well over an hour.”

7. Bathroom deprivation

“One of the top people at one place I worked organized a mandatory party on a weekend afternoon and made it clear people had to show up at 1 p.m. Hourly workers didn’t get paid for their time but had to show up (he had someone take attendance), and when everyone got there, they discovered that the food and the big prize drawing were not going to be held until three (or maybe four) hours later. The party was outside and he supplied a lot of beer and not much else. Partway through, it started to mist and drizzle. He wouldn’t let anyone who wasn’t a supervisor inside his home — not to get out of the rain, and not to use the bathroom. There were no other facilities. And they took attendance again when the food came out to make sure everyone had stayed.”

8. Purging ceremony

“My office went through an incredibly difficult period when we added a new associate and it went horribly. He had to be let go and it was hard on the entire staff, as everyone had resentment toward various components of his work ethic (or lack thereof). A consultant recommended a team-building retreat out of town, complete with cabins, dinners out, shopping on the owner’s dime, etc. It was all fun and games until the consultant held an increasingly uncomfortable debriefing session where we had to write down what didn’t like about the associate who was fired, then had to go around and share aloud. Then the consultant passed around a box for the slips of paper and presented the box to the owner and very seriously said, ‘When you are all at the office again, you need to have a purging ceremony and burn this box with all the baggage inside.’ The owner’s face looked like he wanted to pass out and the rest of us wanted to run away.”

9. Bonded through spitting

“We had to take a big gulp of soda, and spit the soda into a partner’s mouth! It was incredibly disgusting. I have no idea who thought that was a good idea, and who approved it. Some of the guys got into it, but most everyone declined.”

10. Outdoor terrors

“My boss was organizing an event for an offsite, and he decided that we should go canyoning. He knew that a colleague and I were afraid of heights (me) and small enclosed spaces (her). Both of us had been trying to slowly push our boundaries, and he thought this exercise would be fun because it would also assist us in something we were trying to accomplish privately. The event began with a 50-meter rappel. That’s a 165-feet drop. And as you dropped, the walls of the cliffs narrowed into this dark narrow space, with a mountain lake in the bottom. We gritted our teeth and did that part, only to realize the next stages were worse. It was a half-day event, and having started, the only way was to finish the course. There was hyperventilating and actual tears.”

The fix?

So if you’re planning a team-building event for your office, how can you avoid having it become an event that people dread and complain about? These tips will help:

  • Don’t choose activities that might violate people’s dignity, privacy, or personal space. Something you might enjoy with close friends isn’t always appropriate for the workplace.
  • Realize that what’s fun for some people is miserable for others. This especially includes athletic activities and public performances.
  • A top complaint about team-building exercises is that they have no bearing on how people spend their time the other 364 days of the year, so ask yourself whether the activity really relates to the work people are there to do.
  • If the team-building is meant to fix a communication or morale problem, it’s probably not the right solution. Those issues require management to step in and take action.

Are you in employee training management? You may be interested in learning about some training manager successes with QuickBase.












Alison Green

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.

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  • http://www.teambuilding.co.uk/ Stuart Hedges

    The problem of fears and phobias comes up a lot in team building events. One of the most common is the fear of heights and organisers who take a macho line about that sort of activity risk causing serious problems in their team. Typically activities such as high ropes can divide teams instead of bonding them; into those who are scared and those who aren’t.

    I find some of the examples quite hard to believge, for example the soda experice. Did that really happen or is it one of the many tall tales that seem to get associated with team building activities? I suspect that any adult group faced with that proposition would see a substantial number of walk outs.

    [Reply]

    Alison Green - Ask a Manager Reply:

    Given some of the horror stories I heard, I believe it. There’s a whole team-building industry that’s gotten away from what the purpose is supposed to be.

    [Reply]

    Sophie Reply:

    The soda spitting was real, that was my story.  It was part of a new freshman orientation at a college, where people can generally get away with more juvenile stuff.

    [Reply]

  • Dave

    Funny article.  I would love to see the ten best team-building exercises!

    [Reply]

    Alison Green - Ask a Manager Reply:

    Dave, if you want to read all the stories and comments I received in response to the original call, they’re all here:  http://www.askamanager.org/2012/06/team-building-exercises-a-scourge-upon-the-earth.html

    Enjoy!

    [Reply]

  • Marc

    Too bad you do not tell what to do instead. “Step in and take action” is not, well, actionable.

    [Reply]

    Alison Green - Ask a Manager Reply:

    It depends, of course, on what the problem is, and detailing those solutions is well beyond the scope of this post! But serious structural problems like communication issues or lack of team work are not generally solved by group games.

    [Reply]

  • http://www.surpriseindustries.com/ Tanialuna

    We’ve been organizing team building events for years now with the mission of designing experiences that don’t lead to eye rolling and that actually connect the team. Here are some rules we live by.

    1. Have everyone fill out a questionnaire to understand the participants’ restrictions (e.g. phobias, allergies, injuries)
    2. Select an activity that is unusual so that everyone on the team is a beginner (e.g. ice sculpting or knife throwing).
    3. Avoid team building games (particularly if holding hands is involved) – just do fun stuff together that you would do with friends.
    4. Don’t make it mandatory – things are a lot less fun when you’re forced to do them.
    5. Introduce at least a small element of risk for people to bond over but not so much that participants have to step far out of their comfort zones.
    6. Have a structured component (like a class) and an unstructured component later (like going out to eat together).
    7. Have an element of mystery or surprise to build anticipation and intrigue.

    [Reply]

    Alison Green - Ask a Manager Reply:

    I like the fact that it’s voluntary — that seems to be key with this stuff!

    [Reply]

    Vicki Brown Reply:

    Knife throwing? Seriously??

    [Reply]

    Tanialuna Reply:

    Yup. BUT for the right group.

    [Reply]

    Vicki Brown Reply:

    T – I hate to burst your bubble, but if you’re trying to avoid eye-rolling, item #7 on your list is NOT the way to go about it. the “element of mystery or surprise” would not build anticipation and intrigue…especially for those of us who have experienced team-building hell. 

    [Reply]

    Tanialuna Reply:

    Hm that’s a good point. The way we use rule #7 is by keeping what the team will be doing a complete surprise for everyone, including the head of the department. No one but us knows what the group will be doing.

    That way everyone (from CEO to newest intern) is in the same boat and the team isn’t at the mercy of the preferences of the department head. We’ve seen that this also works to bond the team since everyone is a little nervous and excited.

    You’re right though that this wouldn’t work for every team. Actually, we wouldn’t even recommend team building experiences in general to every team. If there are deeply seated issues “fun and games” can just make things worse.

    [Reply]

    Alison Green - Ask a Manager Reply:

    It’s also probably worth noting that even when there aren’t big issues, not everyone like “fun and games” at work and can be demoralized by this stuff.

    Tanialuna Reply:

    Yep. I agree with that. And everyone’s definition of fun is so, so different.

    But I hesitate to say that team building should be done away with all together since we’ve seen it work so well so many times (based on the participants’ feedback).

    I think it can work well for some groups sometimes. But it should always be voluntary, it shouldn’t be preachy (less about “team building” and more about people just having a fun time together) and there should be different opportunities and ways to connect as a team – not just a random outing once a year. Personally, I’m an introvert, and I’m most motivated by quiet conversation with small groups. That can be real team building too.

  • arm2008

    A couple weeks ago the department I work in had a fiscal year kick-off meeting that was primarily team building exercises. Or so I’ve been told. About 10 of us contractors were told the day before that we couldn’t go because there was too much work to do. I couldn’t decide if that was good or bad. 

    [Reply]

    Alison Green - Ask a Manager Reply:

    Judging by the examples here, I’m going to say good thing.

    [Reply]

  • Jewel

    Wonderful article!  I am helping a bright, 23 year old young man who I met when he was in middle school to find a new job.  Through helping him, I’ve discovered so many great resources for myself.  Thank you

    [Reply]

  • http://www.cmoe.com/ CMOE

    And consider people’s medical conditions. An exercise like the one in #5 is simply irresponsible and inconsiderate.

    [Reply]

    Alison Green - Ask a Manager Reply:

    Absolutely. 

    [Reply]

  • http://www.blogging4jobs.com/ Blogging4jobs

    Those are incredible responses…I really can’t fathom how most of those ideas were approved. These are adults we are talking about. Team building should be simple, easy, casual, enjoyable, worthwhile…and normal. I really do wonder what goes through managers’ minds when they come up with these ideas.

    -JMM

    [Reply]

  • http://twitter.com/devans00 devans00

    I’m horrified by at least half of these stories.  I’d be willing to risk unemployment by refusing to participate in a few of them
    4. Bathing with your managers
    7. Bathroom deprivation
    9. Bonded through spitting

    I had one offsite that was personally humiliating for me and several attendees but the manager who organized the outing had the time of his life on the company’s dime.  I suppose that was the most important thing. ::eyeroll::

    [Reply]

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  • Sophie

    I really had a lot of fun reading this article. ‘Naked Relationships’ is by far my favorite.
    Classic Team Building seems now safer, and we will continue this way

    [Reply]

  • Cat

    I really had a lot of fun reading this article. Thank you, Alison!!
    My favourite was “Bathing with your managers”
    I don’t really want to sit naked next to my boss – just the thought of it makes me dizzy! I am a coach and trainer myself and well, I know now that I should just stick to easy team building exercises…
    http://www.icebreakergamesforadults.com

    [Reply]

    Brian O'Grady Reply:

    Maybe it’s because I live in Sweden but the naked bathing was the least offensive one to me…. what’s so bad about that?

    [Reply]

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  • Thomas

    As hard as it is to believe that some of these are real, I know that each of them are! Crazy to think that someone is getting paid to run these! There are good exercises out there that do answer the question: How To Team Build!

    [Reply]

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  • TonyParker1

    sounds like some really bad experiences with team building you have had there!, but personally i would give proper team building companies a chance to orgainse an event who have had many success stories in the past

    [Reply]

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  • Paul Critchlow

    Get everybody involved.

    There are always 1 or 2 in a group, for what ever reason they do not what to be

    involved, being pregnant, broken big toe, really tired or being uncomfortably overweight,

    I get them involved, I ensure my team have enough digital cameras, not expensive ones, merely the point and push type. I then give the cameras to these members not “physically” participating, allowing them still to get up close and personal with the activities, that way they are in the mix too, and not ostracized.

    This way too they help to create the memories for those in the group.

    [Reply]

    Mindy Reply:

    “For whatever reason they do not want to be involved.” Well, that “whatever reason” is theirs and it’s none of your business and they shouldn’t be made to participate. This is exactly why this type of team-building is ostracizing and ineffective. Either choose an event that everyone would be willing to participate in, or don’t do it. This is an example of a manager not caring what his employee might need or want. I believe that team-building happens when people learn to communicate with each other in the workplace. It doesn’t happen after hours, or in the woods, in a three-legged race or in a competitive setting. It happens when people talk and learn to respect each other and understand each other.

    [Reply]

  • Lee Atherton

    Oh my goodness!! I can’t believe the facilitators would think these exercises would actually be effective! (if any of you reading this were one of these facilitators, I would love to hear your perspective!)

    [Reply]

  • Andrew Trevor

    Who ever thought of these should not have a job anymore! i find that most effective team building comes from Belbin Training 9 times out of 10 for sure

    [Reply]

    Brian O'Grady Reply:

    Gee….. do you happen to work for them by any chance….. God I hate these fake recommendations

    [Reply]

  • http://www.demonwheelers.co.uk/ Demon Wheelers

    Wow i can’t believe some companies actually tried some of those listed above they’re horrific. They’re not anything we would ever consider and we’ve been hosting team building events for nearly 20 years. For a company who doesn’t pick the right event for them they should probably save their money. Just arranging a cookie cutter event for the sake of it is next to useless and it’s always better to talk to a professional facilitator.

    [Reply]

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  • jax

    Three golden rules of team building:

    - Never, ever ask anyone to do something they are truly uncomfortable about
    - Do not ask people to share what they don’t like about each other. It never, ever works, and can destroy a team faster than almost anything else.
    - it should be enjoyable for everyone (not just most)

    [Reply]

  • jax

    And the most effective way to get people bonding a team, is to give them a tricky, but fun, problem to solve as a team. Danger and deprivation is completey uneccesary.

    [Reply]

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  • Sabrina Longega Wilson

    Ceremonies can be held anywhere! It is about the themes we have and the Intendance we hired. If you’ll get the excellent person in handling the corporate event. They know about how letting them play and float their ideas with the themes you give.
    Visit: Atmosphere-Sets-Mood
    To have more details.

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  • http://twitter.com/devans00 devans00

    Oh hell no. I’d accept being fired before allowing a co-worker to spit in my mouth. Unless I’m passed out and need CPR, there is no valid reason for a co-worker’s lips anywhere near my mouth.

    I went on one of those outdoor team building events. I’m sure the organizer just wanted the company to pay for his play time. He really burned bridges that day. I don’t think some people ever talked to him again.

    [Reply]

  • Anonymous

    Team building occurs because you accomplish a difficult task together… if this doesn’t happen in your work and you need a special event to provide that, something is wrong. (Can any of you out there tell me what? Hint, hint… it’s about your work.)

    [Reply]

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  • http://www.timbossie.com Tim Bossie

    Wow. There is such a thing as creative team building, but these games take it to a whole new level. Team building activities should never put anyone in danger or be ridiculously gross. Spitting soda in someone’s mouth? Not going to the bathroom? Canyoning without any experience? What about a dance activity or creating art together or simply playing softball?

    [Reply]

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