Why Developers Hate Team Building

Monday Nov 12th 2012 by Eric Spiegel
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Software developers groan at touchy-feely team building exercises. Yet they’re missing out on valuable experiences.

“You can’t make me go.”

Our software development team was sitting around the large conference room table for our weekly team meeting. Jared just matter-of-factly made the above statement when our manager announced an off-site team building activity.

Tim, our boss, was a bit of a hot head. So we all held our breath as he and Jared exchanged unblinking stares.

Tim asked, “Why wouldn’t you want to go Jared?”

“Because it is a waste of time.”

I gave Jared a light kick under the table and he turned and gave me a “what?” look. He could be a bit thick, so I was sure he didn’t realize how deep a grave he was digging himself.

Tim responded, “Jared, this is mandatory. Everyone must participate, end of story.” Tim quickly declared the meeting over and exited.

Everyone now exhaled, but I knew this wasn’t the end of it. Jared was set in his ways and as stubborn as a mule. He was also the smartest person on the team, and that included Tim – who most of the team thought was at the other end of the intelligence spectrum.

But Tim was the boss and Jared had irked him, yet again.

As everyone else was shaking their heads walking out of the conference room, Jared and I lagged behind.

“What were you thinking, Jared?” I asked.

“I was thinking that moron wasn’t going to make me play silly games. And he can’t make me do anything after work.”

Jared was never much for the touchy-feely stuff. Team building certainly seemed to fit into that category.

The thing was, I actually liked team building activities. I enjoyed getting to know my coworkers better and always was interested in finding ways to improve at work.

“Is it really worth fighting him over this?” I asked. “We all work late to make our deadlines and I have never heard you complain about writing code late at night.”

“That’s because writing code is my job. Making nice with my coworkers is just stupid.”

Jared continued with a taint of frustration in his voice. “If they don’t bother me, I won’t bother them. Just leave me alone to code.”

This felt wrong to me, although at the time, I wasn’t sure if he was completely off base. What did it matter if he produced great code on time, yet chose to work in a bubble?

Yet over the next week, I paid closer attention to Jared’s interactions with coworkers – or lack thereof.

Although Jared was a creative problem solver, he by no means was a great brainstormer. He had no clue how to effectively work with the team to devise a solution.

For example, he could easily figure out the most effective way to write an algorithm to fulfill his assigned requirements. But he was feckless when the team needed to design a solution that would not negatively impact a desired downstream result.

Instead, Jared would dig in his heels and state it wasn’t his problem if his code worked just fine, regardless of the impact on other modules that had to leverage his output.

He was not capable of talking through alternatives with the group, partly because he didn’t respect the other’s intellect. This was especially if he had personality conflicts with them – and there was more than one case of this.

Team building could have helped Jared understand how to leverage the strength of others and also, perhaps more important, helped the other team members understand how to better work with Jared. Most of the team simply tried to avoid him, which was a waste of potential intellectual synergies through mutual understanding and eventually cooperation.

I tried a different tact the day before the activity. “You realize the company is springing for food and drinks, right?”

Jared shrugged his shoulders. “I’d rather stick a needle in my eye.”

Yeah, I was getting nowhere and Tim was choosing not to engage Jared. If Jared didn’t show up, Tim would just ding him for it in his performance review. Improving team productivity was included in all of our expectations for the year, so it wasn’t like it was an unfair surprise.

Jared called in sick the next day and missed out on what I thought was a great team building activity. The whole team raved about it the next day.

Jared, miraculously better, was back in the office and totally ignored the team building talk. Tim’s hands were tied because he couldn’t prove Jared was or wasn’t sick.

I had lunch with Jared that same day. He pre-empted me after the first bite of his sandwich. “Do not tell me how wonderful it was. I don’t care and don’t want to hear it.”

“Okay, but it’s your loss my friend.”

As we ate in silence I reflected on how after the team building activity I felt my attitude towards my team members had improved. As a result I trusted them more.

I knew who was better at communicating and who was better at problem solving, and had a better understanding of how they worked best with others. I genuinely felt stoked about what we could accomplish as a team.

Jared? Not so much.

Having long since moved into management, I continue to see the benefits of team building and would rather have a bunch of above average developers who are willing to buy into the team, instead of having a bunch of Jared’s who are lone wolves. The pack is always stronger!

But the wrong approach to team building can create resentment, fear and frustration. Management should work hard to explain the benefits and help the team see how it will personally benefit them in the long run.

Of course, no one size fits all. Activities should address the type of work being done. They need to be tweaked to focus on the interpersonal and cultural dynamics influencing the team’s work environment.

To get the most out of team building activities, it is better to hire a professional facilitator with an organizational development background. However, if you can’t afford one, here are ten quick and easy team-building exercises.

And finally, don’t make the same mistake as Tim. We never had another team building activity, so all the momentum gained was lost.

Team building must be an on-going exercise or the team will see it is a half-hearted effort by management. They won’t take the activity seriously.

So in the end, Jared was proven correct – it was a complete waste of time. He was thrilled about it and even acted smug when Tim was let go due to too many missed deadlines.

I believe those deadlines were missed because the team wasn’t working effectively together. As for Jared, his code was stellar – but he did nothing to contribute to the team’s success, only his own.

I believe Jared and Tim both failed in the long run. Jared failed to realize his full potential and failed his teammates. Tim couldn’t make Jared attend the team-building activity, but he could have implemented an ongoing team building program, and maybe eventually Jared would have seen the light.

Sadly, we’ll never know.

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