Hidden dangers of team building rituals.

I recently saw a blog post on using gif selfies for team bonding, and it made me pause for a moment, and reflect on how I would feel if I was a member of that team.

Before I continue, I want to emphasise that this is in no way an accusation against the writer of that blog post or his team. They've found a perfectly valid technique to promote team bonding which works for them and that's awesome. Animated gifs are great, and having fun in the workplace should definitely be encouraged. I don't want work to be all srs bsns with all the joy sucked out of life.

But that's exactly what can happen to some people when attempts at team bonding go wrong. Everyone else is having fun, except for one person who is forced to put on a fake smile and play-act at enjoying themselves because they're terrified of losing their job for 'not being a culture fit', or just because they've learned over many bitter years that it's easier to play along than to rock the boat and have everyone else in the group dislike them. For that person, the office fun and games can be really srs bsns.

Gif selfies might seem like a tiny innocuous thing to some people, but to others it could pose a huge barrier. To show how, let's go back to last year when a meme of stop-motion animated gif selfies washed over the tech incubator I was working out of. We used a random website someone found to make gifs that communicated our current mental state, and then shared them on a cross-companies web chat. Mostly they were people hitting their head off of keyboards and the like, although I was quite fond of this one:


I actually participated in this meme, despite normally avoiding having my picture taken. I've never liked having my picture taken, and in high school I, an extremely cynical atheist, claimed to believe that cameras stole a piece of your soul and therefore didn't want my picture taken.

I didn't really have concerns about my immortal soul. I just had serious body image issues, which were - and are - a major contributor to a deep-seated self-loathing, which in turn drives a severe depression and on occasion leaves me suicidal.

(I'm okay just now. I'm better than my lowest point, but not really what people would think of as 'normal'. I'm functional, which I'm happy to take as a victory and call 'okay'. I don't talk about why I get depressed much, even with those closest to me, so please respect this and refrain from offering advice or similar.)

So taking part in this silly meme was a huge deal for me, although I didn't mention it at the time. I made a pile of silly gifs, participated in the activities, and it was okay. It was okay because there was absolutely no pressure to participate at all. The trend was mostly led by people in the incubator playing with new technologies (in this case capturing images from a camera using JavaScript) for the sheer joy of it. That kind of joy can be pretty infectious, and is probably how the 'semi-mandatory' gif selfie ritual started in the team described in that blog post.

It becomes a problem later, when it turns into 'semi-mandatory' fun and if someone doesn't participate then they're excluding themselves from the group. It's especially difficult if they previously participated (on a good day, when they only hated themselves a little), but then later (on a less good day, when they're mostly trying not to think of suicide plans) they refuse. They appear inconsistent and weird, isolating themselves at the exact time when they need the most support.

So what can teams like the one discussed in that blog post do? The gif selfie thing has worked great for them, helping them to keep a coherent team and work through difficult issues. But imagine I joined their team. How long would I last before I was putting off making pull requests or leaving comments because I couldn't face creating an image of myself that I would have to look at? How many fake smiles would I have to record out of fear of losing my job?

I'm pretty sure that team doesn't want to exclude anyone, but they also shouldn't have to give up a technique that works to bring them together 'just in case' it causes a problem. How could they adapt it to be more inclusive of people with issues like mine?

Firstly, I'd suggest never, ever, ever referring to something as even 'semi-mandatory', even in jest. Even if it's not actually in the 'HR handbook' rules, if it's a social requirement it can put huge pressure on people. Instead I'd perhaps consider saying something like: "when we have a good idea for a funny gif selfie, we like to include it on the pull request". Notice that this phrasing leaves lots of opportunity to not participate, without having to explain why. This is important: people shouldn't have to be forced into 'outing' themselves as having a mental illness to avoid team building rituals.

It's also important to not cajole people who don't participate in these team building rituals. If someone skips a pull request gif, even if they normally take part, just let it go. If someone gives a technical reason for why they can't participate in the group ritual, before offering technical workarounds consider that they might be using that as an excuse for other reasons that they don't feel comfortable sharing. If their web camera was really broken, they'd probably take their laptop to the Apple Store for a repair.

If someone can't participate in your existing group bonding rituals, try to think of other ways to include them, but be aware that it's best to allow these things to develop naturally over time. Be open to change in team rituals as the personality of the team changes over time. Perhaps the next new start will post cute animal gifs instead of selfie gifs, or X-Files screencaps.

Scully's field has no fucks

I don't mean to single out this one specific team bonding ritual - it just happens to be an excellent example of something that appears to be totally innocuous but could actually be incredibly damaging. Pretty much any 'team building' or 'team culture' ritual can be like this, from pizza lunch to Friday beers, or from team/company clothing to ball-pit interviews. These kinds of things work really well to bring a team together but can easily become exclusionary and almost any ritual can be adapted if left open for change.

It's also really important to remember that while team building can make work a more fun experience, it's not actually an essential part of being a competent professional in our - or any - industry. Small teams and small companies put far too much emphasis on 'culture', and this ends up being a cheap way to exclude anyone who doesn't already fit the company/team norm. (A norm that is almost exclusively white, young, able-bodied, and male.) There's nothing wrong with people who want to come to work, do their job, and go home to do other things. Be open to including people in new and different ways - but don't force things. If someone declines to participate, let them know (ideally by showing rather than telling) that there's flexibility in your team rituals and then leave it up to them to choose their own level of involvement.

In the end, every team will find and make its own rituals and history. However it's important that the members of the team - especially those in senior positions - keep in mind that something that's a harmless bit of fun for one person can be off-putting and stressful for someone else.

If anyone would like to discuss anything I've raised here further, I can be reached at @semanticist, by email to john @ this domain, and I can sometimes be found kicking around CodeBase co-working or other parts of the tech community in Edinburgh.

Thanks to @ntlk, @mungler, and @ryanstenhouse for proof reading this post. (Any and all mistakes or errors, however, remain entirely mine.)