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.

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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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