In this company, we are family: The dark side of team building

This practice, which can help compensate for the distance created by remote work, can also be counterproductive, making employees feel uncomfortable and disrespected

Javier Bardem in the 'The Good Boss', by Fernando León de Aranoa
Javier Bardem in the 'The Good Boss', by Fernando León de Aranoa.

Weekend plans, going out to get some food or a drink at the end of the working day, retreats or trips are some of the tactics that many companies use to promote teamwork, communication and a sense of belonging. This strategy, known as team building, is in many cases honest and well-intentioned, and can even improve the productivity and well-being of the workers. However, there can also be a dark side to it; for instance, when it is not done during business hours and it is mandatory.

Either because of the way in which they are presented or due to the consequences people face if they do not wish to participate, these activities can be an ordeal for the employees. “Healthy workplace requests take into account that there are things that cannot be demanded of workers, and that they have the possibility of choosing from freedom, not from coercion,” explains psychologist Ana Gómez, who insists that companies should not cross the boundary of proposing activities of any kind outside working hours.

After spending many hours a week with the same people in a work context, a person usually prefers to spend whatever free time they have with their loved ones or by themselves, recharging batteries for the following week. However, choosing this option can be tricky if those who provide the paycheck are constantly appealing to the values of loyalty and family, and demanding that they prove their commitment to the company by complying with everything they consider relevant — including attending team building meetings. In this context, employees may feel that this type of activity affects their future within the company. And women fare worse in this aspect.

If the personal time and preferences of the employees are not respected, says Gómez, the result can be precisely the opposite of what was sought by the team building exercise: “The balance between personal life and work must be kept stable. Activities with the company must be regulated in time and space so as not to generate a feeling of overload. Otherwise, something that was supposed to benefit the worker can end up causing harm: insomnia, lack of motivation, obsessive thoughts about work, or conflicts with the family or a partner due to a poor work-life balance. As the saying goes, the cure can be worse than the disease.”

“No one can compete with our team building days. The last time we had a zip line, a barbecue with a veggie option and, afterwards, karaoke for everyone. All the kids in the team were delighted,” brags a CEO played by Rober Bodegas in a video where the Spanish comedy duo Pantomima Full parodies the way in which companies manage to destroy their employees’ weekends; a satire that rings all too true of a type of young company where people are supposedly cared for but where they do not even have the basic protection of a labor union or an employee representative organization.

As explained by Carla Lazo, who talks about labor relations for her almost 60,000 Instagram followers, this resource has gained great popularity in the post-pandemic era, as people have tried to make up for the distance created by remote work. However, the expert points out, there are red flags to take into account, such as when “the employee feels forced to participate in those activities, with no option to refuse, or when they resort to emotional blackmail. Also, when the activities are not aligned with the needs and goals of the employees and, therefore, become a waste of time.”

“The need to belong is a basic necessity of the human being”

Effort, balance, loyalty. These three words are written on the enormous wall of the Blanco Scales warehouse in the award-winning film The Good Boss, by Fernando León de Aranoa. In it, a cunning businessman played by Javier Bardem shows through his actions how, regardless of what he says, not everything he does is “for the good of the workers.” Sometimes under a motto about loyalty and the culture of effort, a perfect trick lies hidden, one conceived to manipulate the workers, making them feel compelled to fulfill every last expectation of the boss because, after all, he is there to take care of them.

“Basically, they appeal to these values because they know that the worker wants to relate to them. If there is talk of loyalty and fraternity and the employee rejects a request, they will feel disloyal and inconsiderate, which will cause internal discomfort. Then they will end up agreeing to what the other wants,” says Gómez. “The need to belong is a basic necessity of the human being, as well as the need for social approval and the need to feel accepted. If someone doesn’t show up for an activity and then sees looks of disapproval on all of the staff’s faces, they are being punished for it. As a consequence, that person can feel very uncomfortable and anxious, have negative thoughts, feel lonely and isolated,” she adds.

Without a doubt, these expressions about family values and loyalty, better suited to movie scripts, can be very effective when it comes to getting people to attend these types of activity. However, the success rate is not absolute, as in many cases the employees become aware that their employers are taking advantage of their vulnerability and refuse to jump through hoops. In fact, one of the unintended consequences of these kinds of attitudes is the motivation to change jobs. “Those same bosses are probably the ones that unwittingly cause the entire turnover of their team,” says Lazo. After all, it’s not the tool, but how you use it. Those team building activities can be fun and rewarding — or a punishment from above, depending on how and why they are set into motion.

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