Should You Give Away Valuable Prizes in Team Building Games?

Watson Advetures Corporate Scavenger Hunt Winners

No. A pricey award for the winners—iPads, days off, $100 gift certificates, you name it—changes the object of the game in the minds of the hunters. For many or most of the participants, the objective changes from “have fun with my colleagues” to “win that iPad!”

At Watson Adventures, we recommend to our clients that modest, symbolic prizes are not just fine, they’re superior. We’ve been staging scavenger hunts for corporate groups since 1999, and we’ve seen clients give out all sorts of prizes—including, yes, airline tickets for the entire winning team. Here’s what we’ve learned and what we advise clients.

Focus on the Fun

As the organizer, you want the most players having fun as possible. Fun is the catalyst for team building. When you share fun with other people, the walls come down, you get to know each other better, and new bonds form. Better camaraderie pays dividends back at the office in improved communication. Countless studies—and perhaps your own intuition—confirm that when people enjoy their workday more, they are more productive. Plus if people have fun, they will thank you and sing your praises.

Higher Stakes, More Problems

But if you raise the stakes with a valuable prize, then you increase the disappointment of the people who don’t win. In fact, you’ve made the majority of the participants unhappier. The competition will be more intense, and instead of low-stakes collegiality and sportsmanship between teams, you get more tension and conflict.

Even worse, high stakes sometimes spur cheating. You and your event provider probably aren’t prepared to fully referee the teams at all times. And if teams catch other teams cheating, then there’ll be strife at the finish line. And when the stakes are higher, people are likely to look out for cheating and see it where it doesn’t exist. Then false accusations are flying when the iPads are given out. Now everyone is grumpy.

The Benefits of Modest Prizes

At Watson Adventures, we’ve always made the prizes modest, unless the client insisted otherwise. For the past five years, we’ve given out Olympic-style medals to winning teams. You have to give out something at the finish line, to acknowledge that one team did best. (We tried giving out nothing in the spirit of “you’re all winners,” but clients told us the game needs a bit more spice.) Only grumps begrudge the winners a medal, and everyone else finishes in good spirits.

Ultimately the most important prize you want your colleagues to take back to the office is the good feeling that comes from a greater appreciation of each other—and the company that values them.

Of course, if your workplace has a culture that’s dog eat dog, and to the victor goes the Alpo, then by all means, give the winners big prizes. But you probably don’t want to build teamwork anyway.