Teambuilding--beyond pizza and pipe cleaners


“Teambuilding activities”
“Tell us one fact that no one else knows about you”
“Personality survey”

If these words cause you to wince or cringe, this paper and its related PMI Congress session are for you! While few project managers would openly state, “I hate teambuilding”, in truth, many of us find this one of the least enjoyable aspects of our jobs. Why is that?

Typically, our earliest promotions were the result of achievement in our individual work results. Because we could turn out excellent results in an appropriate amount of time with little or no supervision, we were promoted to jobs where we supervise other people to ensure that they turn out excellent results in an appropriate amount of time. So we come into this management role with a mindset that what really matters is the work done by individuals.

In fact, not only do we value work done by individuals, but some of us have had bad experiences on teams. Most of us have, at some time or another, been assigned to a team where one or two people did all the work while everyone else just coasted along. “Teamwork” really meant: “Me-work”.

There are other reasons why teambuilding is not something most project managers look forward to. The environments in which most of our projects are managed are not conducive to traditional team development. Flexible work schedules, virtual teams, temporary staff members, and tight deadlines can divide and isolate the team. In addition, many project managers became project managers in recognition of their organization, communication, and technical skills, and they may find themselves to be PM’s without strong team development skills. Finally, project managers are busy people! Schedules, budgets, issues, risks, and stakeholders vie for our attention. We know that teambuilding is important, but often it has taken a backseat to more urgent matters.

The purpose of this paper is to kindle - or re-kindle - your enthusiasm for teambuilding, by highlighting the importance of team development, and, using the framework of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, to identify teambuilding techniques that really work – beyond pizza lunches and pipe cleaner activities.

Why Worry About Teambuilding?

If teambuilding doesn’t come naturally to us, why do it? What are the benefits? More specifically, what’s in it for you, the project manager? Here’s the answer: Having a team that functions well will make your job as a project manager easier. Did you get that? Having a team that functions well will make your job as a project manager easier. Teambuilding suddenly became more interesting, didn’t it? Here are some of the ways your job becomes easier if you have a strong team, which I define as a group of strong individuals who work well together to accomplish a common goal.

  • Members of a strong team are more motivated to perform well.
  • Members of a strong team enjoy their work more - and complain less.
  • Members of a strong team think for themselves.
  • Members of a strong team look out for each other and work together to prevent and solve problems.
  • Members of a strong team are less likely to quit (avoiding having to replace them and train new people).
  • Members of a strong team are positive about the project, ultimately making you look good..

“Teambuilding” is not about conducting games or exercises or dropping a few bucks for pizza every month or so. According to the Team Technology online resource (1995-2005), “‘Team building’ is the process of motivating and enabling a group of people to reach their goal. Therefore, teambuilding is not an event (though events can play a part), nor is it something that can be ‘done’ by someone outside the team (though outside consultants can help)”. (Team Technology, 1995-2005, ¶ 1)

Every year in June, my husband works on the team that prepares a week of dinners for one to two hundred participants at our church’s annual Vacation Bible School. He declares that this is “the most fun I have all year”, and not because the rest of his life is boring! Every year the team works together, planning menus, shopping for groceries, preparing and serving the meals, and cleaning up. That doesn’t sound like fun to me, but what he enjoys about it is being a part of a strong team.

Think about your own positive experiences with teams. At some time have you worked with a strong team of people, all focused on a common goal? Perhaps it was a sports team, or an academic team, or team from a civic or religious organization. You may have had the pleasure of working on a team of volunteers from PMI or on a strong team of work colleagues. Keeping this positive experience in mind, wouldn’t it be great if we could create that type of strong team atmosphere within our own project teams?

We can! The following is an easy to use approach for developing a strong project team – one that will make your job easier. It is based on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, modified to include team needs as well as individual needs. In this approach, you will first assess the individuals to ensure that the appropriate motivational factors are in place for them, and then you will assess your team as a whole. Where you find deficiencies, at the individual or team level, plan and execute appropriate individual or team activities to remedy the deficiencies. Each section below will provide guidance for you as you assess the team and plan and execute team development activities.

Level 1 – Physiological/Communication

In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Level 1 addresses the physiological needs of food, water, clothing, shelter, and sleep. These are the basic things our bodies need to function. If your digestive system hasn’t had enough food, your cardiovascular system will not be able to do its job, and you – the “project manager” – will be entirely focused on getting food to make the digestive system happy.

Level 1 for your team requires that the individuals on your team have what they need in order to accomplish their own work. This goes beyond Maslow’s physiological needs and also includes the basics of tools, education or skills, disposition or orientation, commitment, and time. If one of your team members cannot effectively accomplish his or her work, the team will be affected, and you – the project manager – must focus on addressing that need first. Level 1 for the team requires that individuals must be at Maslow’s Level 1 for individuals. That is, the unmet physiological needs, or basic work requirements of a team member will hamper your ability to build a strong team. You must address individual needs before working on the needs of the team as a whole.

In addition to the individual needs, the most basic requirement for a team to work together is communication. The team members must communicate with each other, and you, the project manager, must communicate with the team. It is no coincidence that one of the earliest stories of teamwork gone bad is the biblical account of the Tower of Babel. The people were working well together until they could no longer communicate, and then the team fell apart. Just as you thought of a positive team experience, now consider a negative team experience you have had. It is very likely that one of the basic problems with that team was poor communication.

Actors must sometimes “over-act” to be sure everyone in the audience gets the message. Likewise, project managers must sometimes “over-communicate” to ensure everyone in the team gets the message. The importance of communication cannot be over-emphasized. The project manager must place a high priority on clear, open communication with every single team member – regardless of role, location, language, or personality type.

If there are individual team members who are unable to carry their own weight, or, if there are communication issues on the team, these concerns must be addressed first and foremost before engaging in any other teambuilding activities (Exhibit 1).


Exhibit 1: Level 1 – Physiological/Communication

Level 2 – Security/Trust

Maslow labeled Level 2 as “Security”. Once the physiological needs of the individual are met, safety becomes the next concern. For the individual this includes job protection, financial security, and freedom from fear. It is very difficult to build a strong project team amid layoffs, downsizing, outsourcing, and acquisitions because the team members are primarily concerned about their own individual security. One reason traditional teambuilding activities seem to fall flat is because the individuals can’t possibly begin to think like a team if they are wrapped up in their own individual concerns.

This is an unfortunate and common situation in our projects today. What’s a project manager to do? We certainly can’t promise jobs where there is no promise of a job, but by our attitudes and actions we can project confidence to the team. Primarily this means not adding fuel to the fire. The project manager must be optimistic and positive. Do not pass along rumors or engage in idle speculation with team members. Take every opportunity to point out the valuable skills each team member brings to the table, which would be marketable in any job in any company. Like many other aspects of project management, this is an area in which you must bring all of your creative forces to the table to find ways to address the security needs of your individuals.

If Level 2 represents “security” to the individual, to our teams, it represents “Trust”. In The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni (2002) states, “Trust lies at the heart of a functioning, cohesive team. Without it, teamwork is all but impossible.” He goes on to describe trust as “the confidence among team members that their peers’ intentions are good, and that there is no reason to be protective or careful around the group.” (p. 195). Your team cannot be a high performing team if the members don’t trust each other.

One of the most exciting teams I have worked on was on a project team at work comprised of smart, conscientious people. We could always count on each other to do our best with every task. It was very liberating not to have to worry about what other people were doing – I knew that what they did would be done correctly and on time. That’s not to say we were perfect – we weren’t. Mistakes were made, but they were promptly acknowledged and corrected. This is at the heart of trust within the team.

In addition to trusting each other, we must be trustworthy as a team. We must present a team face to the world. To outsiders we must strive to be dependable – to do the job correctly and on time, never making excuses for poor work. It sounds preposterous to think that your feet would say, “It’s not really our fault that we couldn’t run a mile. It’s the mouth’s fault for not eating the right food!”. But sometimes team members are quick to blame each other to the outside world. In order to be trustworthy as a team, we must all take responsibility for the work of the team, certainly never pointing out the shortcomings of team members to people outside the team.

If there are un-met security needs among your individual team members or if team members do not trust each other, you must focus your efforts on resolving those problems before engaging in any other teambuilding activities (Exhibit 2).


Exhibit 2: Level 2 – Security/Trust

Level 3 – Acceptance/Fellowship

Having met the physiological and security needs of your individual team members and addressed communication and trust needs of the team as a whole, you may now turn your attention to ensuring that individual team members are accepted into the group and that the group is performing well together as a team. This is Level 3 on the hierarchy of needs, and these two things – individual acceptance and fellowship – are interrelated.

Have you ever had the experience of being left out of a group that you very much wanted to be a part of? For some of us, this conjures up our most painful memories – the team that didn’t choose you; the club that wouldn’t allow you to join; the lunch group that “forgot” to include you – you know exactly what I’m talking about, don’t you? What a sad situation it is, when the group that excludes you is the very project team to which you are assigned. As project manager, you must be vigilant to ensure that this does not happen on your team.

Excluding a team member is much more often a sin of “omission” rather than “commission”. We rarely find the case where the team intentionally excludes someone. Hopefully we left that behavior behind on the 3rd grade playground! However, it is very easy to unintentionally exclude someone - “Oops, I accidentally left your name off of the meeting invitation”; “Didn’t you hear about that – oh, I guess we were discussing it at lunch yesterday”. Unfortunately there are many, many ways that we leave people out. What about the meeting that strays off topic and covers material where the owner is not present? What about the project manager who eats lunch with the same subset of team members every day? What about the team member who is not physically located with the rest of the team? If one of your team members does not feel like he or she is part of the team, this will negatively impact your efforts at building a strong team.

The good news is that this is relatively easy to fix! Once you become aware of the importance of ensuring that every team member is included as part of the team, you will learn to recognize and prevent exclusionary activities. And once you have the exclusionary practices under control, you are ready to engage in fellowship-building activities. This is where the fun starts!

I choose the term, “fellowship-building” to distinguish these activities from your overall teambuilding activities, which include all of the activities to build up the team. These “fellowship-building” activities are specifically aimed at promoting camaraderie among team members while helping them develop their capacity to work effectively together. Fellowship-building activities range from problem-solving tasks to social outings. Here is another place for you to kick your creativity into high gear, as you think of ways to promote fellowship among your team members.

Here are a few ideas to get your started:

  • Provide team t-shirts, mugs, slogans, or a catchy team name
  • Engage in friendly contests related to your work
  • Have fun competitions not related to work
  • Participate in competitions against other teams
  • Conduct “meaning-full” team building activities
  • Establish a silly tradition

Silly traditions? One team I worked on awarded a foam brick to the person who made the biggest mistake each week. On another team, whenever a problem needed the attention of the team, the members all donned fire hats. And on yet another team, good things were celebrated with the chicken dance! You probably have examples of your own. These are what make teams fun, and turn individuals into team members and team members into friends.

If there are un-met acceptance needs among your individual team members or if there is no team fellowship, address these issues before moving on (Exhibit 3).


Exhibit 3: Level 3 – Acceptance/Fellowship

Level 4 – Esteem

You are now well on your way to having a strong team. Having resolved individual problems and built a team that enjoys working together, your focus is now team-oriented for the remaining two levels. Self-esteem is at Maslow’s Level 4, but what you should now work on is “Team-esteem” - helping your team to develop a positive reputation -internally and externally.

In order to do this, you must convey purpose at all levels:

  1. 1) You are important to our team
  2. 2) Our team is important to the project
  3. 3) This project is important for our division
  4. 4) Our division is important to our company
  5. 5) Our company makes a difference in the world

You, the project manager, should consider yourself to be the “public relations manager” for the project. Find opportunities to put your project and your team in the spotlight. Don’t wait for someone to provide recognition. Go look for it. Sometimes this means that you must make the arrangements for your sponsor or for senior management to interact with and encourage your team. Set it up yourself and perhaps even provide some suggested comments.

Take every opportunity, and create your own opportunities, to build up the esteem and reputation of your team. As the adage says, “He who tooteth not his own horn, the same getteth it not tooted!”.

Level 5 – Self-Actualization

Maslow identified Level 5 as “Self-Actualization”, which he defined as “the intrinsic growth of what is already in the organism, or more accurately, of what the organism is” (Maslow, 1949, as cited in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, ¶ 6). It is recognizing who you are and becoming all you can be. Here is a partial list of characteristics of a self-actualized person, which also apply to “self-actualized” teams:

  • Realistic
  • Spontaneous
  • Creative
  • Problem solvers
  • Relationship builders
  • Appreciative of life
  • Moral

(Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, ¶ 6)

Unlike the previous levels of needs, there is not much you, the project manager, can do to help your team achieve this level. It’s almost as if the team must “grow themselves” into a self-actualized group. Instead, at this level, your job is to realize the growth the team has achieved, and basically stay out of their way as they reach their full potential together.

Now that your team is living and working at their full potential, your job is basically done here – except for the fact that nothing in project management is static. With a change in staffing, a change in direction, a change in leadership, or with any material change, you may find yourself once again dealing with Level 1, 2, 3, or 4 needs, that must be addressed in order for you to have a strong team.


Team development activities are important because having a strong, high performing team makes the project manager’s job easier. The steps to having a strong team are these:

  1. 1) Assess the needs of team members – physiological, security, or acceptance
  2. 2) Assess the needs of the team as a whole – communication, trust, fellowship, or esteem
  3. 3) Plan the appropriate actions to meet the needs
  4. 4) Execute the actions
  5. 5) Repeat until the project ends

In closing, remember that you cannot advance to a higher level until needs at the lower level have been met. This is the heart of why many traditional team building activities don’t work. Inviting the team to lunch with the CEO (Level 4 – esteem) is not appreciated if the team members are suffering from too much to do and too little time (Level 1 – physiological). Taking the team bowling (Level 3 – fellowship) is not much fun if the team members are in the habit of complaining about each other (Level 2 – trust).

In Why Teams Don’t Work, Harvey Robbins and Michael Finley (1995) say that a team is a “surprising, perplexing, up-and-down, tragicomic, value-creating human thing. A human thing that needs a ton of attention. That has to be pampered, fed, stroked, and have its pen hosed out from time to time.” (p. 16). As you “hose the pen of your team”, you will find that your teambuilding efforts will be more successful if you first assess the needs of your team and then address your efforts to the team’s current level of need.

Now you can stop wincing and cringing and enjoy the easy life, thanks to teambuilding!



Finley, M., & Robbins, H. (1995). Why Teams Don’t Work. Princeton, NJ: Peterson’s/Pacesetter Books

Lencioni, P. (2002). The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. (2006). In Wickipedia. Retrieved July 19, 2006, from's_hierarchy_of_needs

Team Technology. (1995-2005). What is “Team Building”?. Retrieved July 19, 2006, from

© 2006, Margaret L. Love
Originally published as a part of 2006 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Seattle Washington



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