Team Building and the Element of Surprise

Greeting people at the door and receiving a warm, friendly reception is my typical experience upon starting a program. One particular time stands out as the majority shuffled in without acknowledging me at the door. Some stopped with reluctance to take their playing card before finding a seat. Within five minutes of beginning, one person asked where the bathroom was located and left the room. I waited to start, but he never came back. Shortly later, a handful of people hovered together, creating quite the disruption, to deal with a so-called crisis.

I realize that it’s nearly impossible to satisfy everyone in a group of 50 people, but rarely do I get such a negative vibe as I did this time. Despite the initial lack of interest, and countless distractions during the program, the feedback from my client’s group was good. Much to my surprise, 85% was extremely positive, 10% was in the middle and 5% was extremely negative. I was pleased with the feedback and looked carefully at the comments, especially to the few that were very negative…

“I do not believe 2+ hours essentially playing games is going to make us work together better.”

“I left at the beginning of this. This was an absolute waste of time. Playing games with the toys doesn’t develop personal relationships in the way that was trying to be accomplished. If you want certain people to have conversations let them describe their job, so I can ask questions and communicate effectively.”

With nearly 30 years of experience conducting these programs, I’ll be the first to admit that not every program is perfect, effective or a home run. I realize I’m not going to make believers out of everyone. Naturally, I want to understand what I could do differently to engage the folks that had a less than stellar experience. After every program, I strive to determine where I was lost in translation between the people who I was successful at engaging and those who I was not. Fortunately, there is always plenty of positive feedback…

“I don’t normally like these kinds of events but Mr. Huber keeps it interesting and gives an understanding as to why we did it.”

To get to the bottom of the brutally honest, negative feedback, I wanted to find out from my client how they positioned the program to their group. What did they tell these folks prior to the program? One of the first questions I asked was “what did you tell them about the team building session?”. Much to my dismay, but not my surprise, the group coordinator said, “I didn’t say anything, I like to keep it a surprise”.

The element of surprise is something I encounter in nearly 25% of all the programs I conduct. And that, my friends, is the problem. NEVER keep your team building or team development a surprise from your people.


  • The group needs to know that you value the team building process.
  • The group needs to know “what’s in it for me?
  • The group needs to know that you care about their development.
  • The group needs to know you trust the team building vendor enough to deliver the program that you have chosen.
  • The group needs to know the time spent is a development opportunity for them (collectively as a group and individually).
  • The group needs to understand how this session fits into the other parts of the program content.
  • The group needs to understand in clear terms what experiential learning is all about and how it is different than the “classroom” learning environment, or death by PowerPoint.

This is not to absolve the team building provider of any of his/her responsibility as the vendor and provider of services. A reputable team building provider still needs to create an engaging environment and one in which people can make the choice to learn. Also, the provider needs to match the activities to the audience and the outcomes.

In the example above, I believe if the client had framed the experiential learning process, the value of the experience and how it relates to the specific outcomes of the overall session, people would have come in more open-minded. Critical for these programs, an open mind allows folks to see beyond the activities and games to realize the program is designed to…

  1. Be fun and engaging but with the purpose of creating conversations to accelerate the process of building relationships.
  2. Create a level of challenge that can lead to success or failure but most important what can be learned from either outcome.
  3. Help people and teams learn to think differently about how they work together and solve problems.

Surprise doesn’t add excitement to the team building experience

The majority of people today have participated in some pretty lame team building experiences that truly were a waste of their time and did not add any value to the overall experience and/or felt disconnected from the overall event in some way.

Moral of the story — If you are doing a team building event to accomplish certain outcomesand spending time and money on the event, do your part in framing the experience properly so the participants understand there is purpose and value in the time you are asking them to spend. Then of course, make sure you select the right vendor that can keep YOUR promise.

To learn more about our teambuilding programs, contact Signature Teambuilding today.