The Collaborative Art Of Team Bonding

Recently, a few of my work friends, all team leads, pulled me into what was supposed to be an easy conversation about team bonding.

What it turned out to be, quite quickly, was a frenetic debate about the intolerable inconvenience of fraternising with co-workers in the name of making sacrifices for the greater good of team spirit. It’s anyone’s guess which side I was on.

One of the things that came up during the heated discussion was the general notion that there are two ways to get people to participate in team bonding activities outside work hours.

First, by peddling the myth that being colleagues is equal to being friends (and friends should spend time together, logically).

Second, by mandating them to show up as proof of a good attitude to work with the not-so-subtle threat that “eyes are on them” sprinkled all over for maximum effect.

The problem with the first idea is obvious – it’s just not true.

Never in the accessible history of gloriously life-consuming capitalism has being co-workers equated to being friends.

It’s probably more likely for the seemingly cordial people that we share workspaces with to be polite enemies-in-waiting, choosing peace but undecided about the required level of violence and what the permanent nature of their relationship with us should be until they have a reason to make up their mind.

Now, if the first idea is a dangerous lie that sets us up for false connections, the second is even more potentially damaging.

Emotional manipulation and coercion as tools for getting buy-in at work haven’t done too well for themselves. They lead to ill will toward co-workers or an unsettling feeling around them, the association of work with extreme forms of Chinese torture, and a mental struggle that seeks to resolve where the passion for a job ends and performative compliance begins.

I strongly believe that passion can be manufactured, interest (in participating) is admirable and our attitude is one of the most crucial parts of our (role at) work, but there’s something to be said for being forced to commit to non-work activities that are supposedly for the greater good but just feel like more work.

By the time the debate ended, strong statements had been made and feelings had been hurt but we had also arrived at the unanimous conclusion that inclusive activities must be inclusive from the start.

I’ll explain practically.

Let’s say that we’re looking to get teammates to show up (on time) for brunch on a Saturday – a day usually reserved for being as far away from anything work-related as possible, we’ll attempt to follow this guide:

1. Collaborate to plan the gathering.

If we’re truly ready to move away from coercion and giving orders toward influencing people and helping them see reasons to be more amenable to group experiences, we should start by involving everyone in planning the experiences. It’s that simple. Even really large teams can ask for suggestions from everyone.

2. Choose an event producer.

Every event needs someone to coordinate it. We’re calling that person a producer in this case because brunch is entertainment. We will not choose a senior manager – expected, boring and potentially alienating. Instead, we’ll nominate someone who’s closer to everyone on the team – the glue.

3. Hype up the event slightly.

We’ll design a flyer, call attention to the food, and mention a few games we might play. The point is to make the event seem like something that shouldn’t be missed.

4. Say nothing about team bonding.

The habit of forcing things and overstating their importance hasn’t gotten us far. We won’t do that anymore. Besides, what about brunch with one’s teammates doesn’t already scream “team bonding?”

5. Allow everyone to choose their responsibilities.

We’re assuming that most people would at least try to participate when they’ve made some kind of voluntary commitment, so we’re going to make a to-do list, then ask everyone to pick what they’d be comfortable handling until all the tasks are covered by at least one volunteer.

If you think this guide is asking for too much effort, you’ve probably checked out, and depending on who you ask, that’s okay.

But for managers and leads who have been struggling to get team buy-in and are still willing to try almost anything including bribery, I hope it does even more for you than whatever it does for us whenever we get around to using it.