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Why Some Team-Building Events Backfire

By Melissa J. Anderson

When managers are looking to increase the collegiality of their employees, one of the standard methods is to hold team-building events – like picnics, happy hours, or other after-work outings (otherwise known as “integration experiences”). The idea is to get people to share information about themselves beyond what happens at work, thereby increasing closeness between coworkers.

And usually, it works – studies show that when colleagues are emotionally closer to one another, they end up working together better. But, according to new research, the “integration experience” method of producing that closeness can backfire.

It turns out that team-building activities can make people feel closer in homogeneous groups. But in diverse groups, that doesn’t necessarily happen. In fact, these activities can go so far as to have the opposite effect, causing minority employees to feel even more isolated. After all, attempts at conversation can sometimes produce more differences, rather than similarities. This ultimately creates a magnified feeling of difference in the person of a demographic minority.

The study, “Getting Closer at the Company Party: Integration Experiences, Racial Dissimilarity, and Workplace Relationships” was written by Tracy L. Dumas, Fisher College of Business, The Ohio State University; Katherine W. Phillips, Columbia Business School, Columbia University; and Nancy P. Rothbard, Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. It was recently published in the journal Organization Science.

The authors write, “These findings highlight the importance of creating the right kind of interactions for building closer relationships between employees, particularly relationships that span racial boundaries.”

Similarities and Differences

The authors suggest two ways that integration activities can backfire for organizations seeking to cultivate more personal closeness between employees. “First, when dissimilar individuals acquire more personal information about each other through their integration behaviors, they may discover similarities, but their interaction may also highlight differences between them. The differences dis-covered may confirm the expectations of dissimilarity that accompany demographic dissimilarity.”

Second, they continue, “This can lead to an exaggerated sense of dissimilarity such that they feel more isolated …and experience the organizational context differently than those who are demographically similar to the majority.”

Their research backs up these suggestions. While majority survey respondents said they felt closer to their colleagues as a result of integration activities, minority survey respondents were more likely to say it had the opposite effect. Interestingly, they found that minority respondents were more likely to engage in integration activities, despite the potential discomfort it produced.

Dumas, Phillips, and Rothbard found that the reasons they attended these events were extrinsic – rather than getting personal satisfaction from attending, they felt that people wanted them there or that they had to attend. The researchers emphasize that this doesn’t mean organizations should stop doing team-building activities. But they should be more mindful about how they happen.

“Overall, our findings suggest that expected ways of improving relationships in the workplace—increased social contact and the exchange of individuating information—may not be equally effective for all employees in racially diverse settings, and they highlight the importance of the quality of that social contact. Indeed, the mediating effect of the quality of workers’ experiences when integrating reveals that the dynamics of trying to build close relationships in a work setting are complex, particularly among those who are racially dissimilar.”

Basically, they write, make sure managers are being respectful of their employees’ time and preferences, ensuring that group activities happen in comfortable atmosphere, and that it is emphasized that they are optional. They continue:

“Indeed, our findings regarding the importance of positive integration experiences suggest that organizations must examine multiple ways to craft an environment where employees from many different backgrounds can feel comfortable. When organizations sponsor social activities for their employees, care should be taken to ensure an atmosphere where employees are likely to feel comfortable and respected and have a good experience.”

They also suggest that team-building events aren’t the only key to developing good coworker relationships. The most effective key for that, they write, may just be good management. “Therefore in diverse settings where close relationships are more difficult to build, if managers place a greater emphasis on task-related successes and competencies, they may achieve the kind of positive working relationships that are so valuable in organizations.”

Finally, they add, “Managers can [improve integration] by fostering a culture that is able to accept, respect, and assimilate differences.”

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