Beyond the hallowed halls of HR departments the term ‘team building’ is often met with eye rolling, head shaking and forced smiles. But what exactly is it that inspires such a reaction? According to the all knowing, all seeing Wikipedia, team building is a “philosophy of job design…” The companies and consultants that provide team building programs for businesses use phrases like …”facilitate true, authentic bonds between members of corporate teams”. Which they do by “…putting teams under pressure in a fast-paced collaborative process.” Naturally, all of this is done “in a fun spirited atmosphere.” Of course, it’s all fun and games until something goes horribly, terribly wrong.
Take for example night Tony Robbins, self help guru, motivational speaker and prince of the infomercial sent more than 20 people to the hospital with severe burns on the soles of their feet. Team building is supposed to de-stress the workplace and provide staff with new skills or perspectives on how to do their jobs by improving communication. While screams for help and calls to 911 are effective I don’t think that’s the kind of communication that team building is supposed to improve.
This potential for team building to go badly is why the otherwise innocent phrase “I read somewhere” announced by a very earnest manager standing on a chair in the break room makes so many people nervous. For many the jury is still deliberating the value of team building. No matter where you stand on the concept you may still find yourself face to face with having to organize just such an event which is why it’s a good idea to understand what can turn a good idea bad.
May I be Honest?
These programs go by a variety of names and formats. A popular version, including sitting cross legged in a circle and playing a sort of tell it like it is version of spin the bottle. This one is similar to the version you played as an adolescent which invariably ended with one or more people running from the room in tears. There is a bottle or arrow which gets spun and instead of having to kiss the person it points to, participants are encouraged to honestly express their feelings about that person.
In their natural state most participants are smart enough not to tell their boss what they really think of them. Of course a team building exercise takes people out of their natural environment and a skilled facilitator can convince most to spill their guts about their colleagues. The result is a lot of hurt feelings and possibly a toxic atmosphere going forward. On the bright side, your boss no longer toils under the illusion that the furry woodland creature on top of his head looks like natural hair.
There are several versions of the old joke about the three biggest lies, most of which are not appropriate for this blog, but they all revolve around misplaced trust. For example, you pay this time, and I’ll get it next time or the check is in the mail. Team building trust exercises are supposed to work by showing co-workers that they can rely on each other for support, you know… trust them.
The classic trust exercise is some variation of the falling backwards thing where one person falls backward into the arms of another. In order to keep this one fair and impartial names are often drawn from a hat and an unalert facilitator can easily overlook the disaster waiting to happen when 6’6” Ron from sales is paired with 5’2” Lucy from marketing. Even with Ron’s assurances that he’s not as heavy as he looks and Lucy’s promise that she’s stronger than you would think, they should both be back to work in a couple of weeks at most.
Cleanliness is Next to Uncomfortable
Team building is all about breaking down barriers and creating bonds. According to team building experts a significant barrier to team success comes from not really knowing the people you work with as people. They are titles, job descriptions or suits. So if you remove the façade and have people deal with each other as people, real bonds can be forged. Like any industry, team building is a competitive field where the latest, greatest and most effective ideas get the most clients.
One highly competitive firm looked to Japan for inspiration for new team building exercises and came back with coworkers visiting a natural hot spring where, as the brochure stated, barriers to communication would be washed away. Unfortunately for participants, the word natural has two meanings and only one of them referred to the hot spring. The other referenced the requirement for everyone to be naked so that the participants could see each other as people.