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A reader writes:

I have been at my job for about 10 years now. When I first started working here, we had a holiday potluck at an outdoor terrace on campus with just our department. It was kind of fun, but some people complained about "the sappy trees" and "dirty chairs" so the next year, our manager suggested we go out to lunch, which we did. It was nice, but the people in our department don't really get along well, so it was a bit awkward. I had made up some holiday-themed games and prizes. That seemed to be the highlight of the event.

The next year, our manager invited us to a potluck at his house in a remote part of town on a weekend evening. I attended, but about half of the department did not. The following year, we were invited for cocktails and food at a nearby bar after work. I and another employee got there about 10 minutes after the starting time, and all the food was gone. The manager purchased one order of French fries for the latecomers, but that was it. Then there was the time our staff assistant arranged another potluck in a conference room. This was very depressing, more like a department meeting with food. There were games, but it was nearly impossible to get anyone to participate; they are all sticks-in-the-mud.

For the past three years, we have done nothing. This year, I asked if we were going to have a holiday party, and the staff assistant said that the department head "hadn't had enough time to plan something" and then yesterday we got an invitation to go bowling one night after work after the holidays are over.

I have been frustrated for years about the lack of team-building in our department, so you probably think I should be glad that we're finally invited to get together, but in actuality, I am annoyed. I believe that if there was strong leadership, we could actually interact and be a strong team, so I'm not one to just give up hope easily, although I do think at this point with the people involved that it's never going to happen. I know that if I had not inquired about a party, this wouldn't even be happening. Shouldn't staff appreciation be genuine? Maybe my bad attitude about our leadership is tainting my thought process, or perhaps I'm right in feeling slighted. I would appreciate your insight to the situation and advice for how to proceed.

Well, for what it's worth, the majority of your department doesn't really seem to want these holiday events. There have been complaints and lackluster attendance at previous ones, apparently no real push to schedule something the last three years when there wasn't anything, and a general lack of interest. I don't think it's reasonable to call people sticks-in-the-mud because they don't want to play games at a department potluck in the middle of the workday; that's not everyone's bag.

It sounds like they put something together this year when you suggested it, so that was pretty responsive of them, and they're wisely trying something different than the events that haven't gone over so well in years past ... although I'm skeptical that this group is going to enjoy bowling either. I'm not sure why it's making you feel unappreciated -- you spoke up and indicated you were hoping for an event this year and they scheduled one.

I think what's happening here is that you're working with a group of people who just aren't that into these events. And that's fine; some people like this stuff, and some don't. Most commonly, the people who don't like these events find themselves working with people who do, and have to go along with the majority's wishes. In this case, you've found yourself working with people who aren't terribly enthused, and you probably need to accept that the majority of your coworkers just feel differently about it than you do.

If your department has a problem with team cohesion, that's a legitimate issue -- but it's not one that's going to be fixed by better holiday events or team-building activities. No management problem in the world has ever been solved by a holiday party or a team-building event, believe me. That's going to take strong action from the top. Finding ways to bring your team together in relaxed, informal settings can be part of that, but it won't be the main thing.

So I'd stop looking at the holiday parties through that lens. But if you do want to improve the parties, see if you can get feedback from people about what kind of holiday event they would enjoy and what they did and didn't like about past events. But if it turns out that your coworkers don't particularly want a holiday party, that's okay too.

Want to submit a question of your own? Send it to alison@askamanager.org.

Published on: Dec 12, 2017
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.