Earlier this year, I was in Denver preparing for a treasure hunt. The night before the program, the client asked me to join the group for a drink at the hotel where we were staying. Expecting fifteen people when I arrived in the hotel lounge, I was surprised to see that only fourteen team members were present. Who was missing? “Oh, that’s just Mark being Mark” explained my client contact, Anthony. “He doesn’t believe in business-related socializing during his ‘private time.’”

The next day in our conference room, I finally met Mark, a tall, stern-looking Caucasian man in his 50s, with arms perpetually folded across his chest and a perma-scowl fixed upon his face. Warily I approached him and asked, “So, Mark, why didn’t we see you at the social last night?” Expressionless, he intoned, “The way I see it, I have a business life and a private life and I see no reason to mix the two. I come to work, do my job the best I can, and punch the clock. Why do I have to socialize with the people I work with?”

“And your feelings about our upcoming teambuilding program?”

“Just more useless social nonsense.”

Harumph. I could see Mark and I were going to have quite an “adventure” together that day. But more on that later on.


I like to share this story with my clients because it raises some fairly significant philosophical questions about work, namely:

Is teambuilding necessary?
Do we really need to have a “relationship” with our co-workers?

As a teambuilding trainer my gut response, of course, is “Yes! Relationships are what business is all about!” But perhaps it’s worth slowing down and examining the matter more closely.

The argument against relationship-building at works starts with this common expression: “I work to live, I don’t live to work.” Put differently, one’s work life and one’s private life are two distinct entities, with private life possessing quite a bit more value. Work, from this viewpoint, is what you tolerate in order to support the “real” life that exists in your “free” time. Now I agree that people should maintain a healthy balance between work and relaxation. Where I disagree is the notion that either of the two “lives” has more value than the other. Private time is indeed important—and so is work time …in more or less equal measures.

Implicit, as well, in the expression “I work to live, I don’t live to work” is the idea that one’s behavior should be different in work and at play. According to the Marks of the world, your private time is when you’re allowed to be yourself: warm, playful, vulnerable, and social. At work on the other hand, one should be business-like: serious, responsible, efficient and self-contained. The fact that maintaining this kind of Jeckyl & Hyde personality-split puts tremendous stress on people would be lost on Mark and his ilk. They see business as a complicated machine; you assemble all the necessary parts (people), put them together, add oil, fuel, and maintenance, and the mechanism moves ahead, generating profits. Relationship-building is merely a wrench in the works…a wasteful machine stoppage.

Alas, both the mechanistic-business model and the business-time/private-time dualism fail to take into account this essential reality about human beings: We are driven by relationships, both privately and professionally. And what’s more, business success is driven by relationships as well!

So what is the goal of a relationship? Remarkably, business relationships and personal relationships have much the same aims—namely, to move ahead together towards a common goal. Say for example two people meet, fall in love, and decide to plan a life together. The long-term success of their union will rely greatly on their ability to align their hopes, dreams and aspirations. So how do they “get on the same page”? They talk things out! They discuss, debate, argue and negotiate—without holding back or “stuffing” their feelings (which would only creates resentment later on). For the sake of reaching and maintaining a common vision of the future, they do what it takes to create an open, honest environment for debate and discussion. Only when people are heard, when they hash things out passionately will they really buy-into a shared, common vision. And this must happen again and again and again, throughout the course of their relationship.

The same, it seems, is true for business. Getting people to commit to Common Goals is the competitive advantage for the 21st century. Those companies which can nurture such an environment, in which people are all rowing in the same direction, will be the ones to outstrip their competition.

So how does a business go about achieving commitment to a common vision amongst its employees? Because we’re no longer talking about just two people in relationship. We’re talking about a marriage of twenty people, of 200, of 2000!

Just as in romantic relationship, the key in business is establishing an environment of open dialogue and discourse, where people can disagree about, debate, and discuss the direction of their work—openly, without filtering or holding back. Then, when the debate is over, they need to be able to walk away without collateral damage or unexpressed grievances. The fact that they’ve been heard tends to be enough.

Establishing such an environment is no easy task. You need to have trust…trust that people will play by the rules and keep discussion focused on ideas rather than personality…trust that expressing yourself will not endanger relationships…trust that people will walk away without harboring ill will and grudges.

And this is where teambuilding really earns its stripes. A well-conceived and executed teambuilding program can jumpstart the process of trust formation. It can break down the barriers that force people to maintain their shells of invulnerability. It can encourage people to have empathy for their fellow co-workers. And it can provide structures and processes that better maintain an atmosphere of safety.

To summarize:

Trust leads to a feeling of safety.
Safety allows people to make themselves vulnerable by risking disagreement with others.
Disagreement, debate and discussion allow everyone to be heard.
When everyone has said his/her piece, commitment to a common goal emerges.
Commitment to a common vision leads to higher productivity!

Relationship-building, then, is not some frivolous, morale-building diversion—it’s sound business practice, an important ingredient for high performance and efficiency.

Now back to Mark in Denver:

“So Mark, have you ever been a part of a work team where you enjoyed being together, felt some synchronicity, had fun and achieved great things together?

“Yeah, once. In fact, I once worked as a bellhop right here in this hotel.”

“Really? And did you enjoy that experience, that sense of flow?”

“I sure did.”

So wouldn’t you want to have that experience again?”

“Well, at this company, the management commands everything from the top. We don’t have any say in the decision-making. Our opinions don’t matter! So why should I put in the effort to spend time with and build relationships with my co-workers?”

“So you’re saying that management has a responsibility for setting the tone and nurturing a participative environment.”

“You got it.”

As it turned out, Mark’s disillusionment that day was fairly intractable. Walking through the treasure hunt program without little or no involvement, he created neither positive nor negative ripples, remaining detached. Here was a person without relationship at work, and clearly suffering for it.

To Do and Notice:

It’s time to diagnose your work environment. Look around your office and ask yourself the following questions:

1) Is everyone clear and committed to our departmental and company goals?

2) Do we even have clearly-stated goals?

3) Would I be willing to argue openly with my co-workers about the direction the department is moving? Would anybody else?

4) Is the success of the team more important than my individual career goals?

It’s up to you to start making your work, like your life, a more functional, relationship-oriented place!