Team Building? What Not to Do.

Posted by jlubans on July 15, 2014

Caption: The infamous fire walk. A few beers and a quick step help.

A week ago, NPR did a story onTeam Building Exercises Gone Bad.
Real bad. Yuki Noguchi, the reporter, uses three anecdotes to get her point across, team building - with flying piñatas, paintball projectiles, and hallucinogenic mushrooms - is a dud. While the report is largely negative – and the 120 comments only aggravate the pessimism – I have to agree that misguided adventure based team building can go awry. I’ve been part of a few team building episodes that crashed, went nowhere, and no one learned anything except they really, really did not want to be there. And, I have been part of highly successful ventures in which participants expanded horizons, challenged assumptions, and made productive transfers to the workplace.
But, back to the story.
While the three anecdotes in the NPR piece sound well embellished - like the larger and larger fish that got away - I do not doubt something like what’s purported did happen. While I do not personally know anyone in the adventure education business who would do what’s described, I know there are rogue operators or that circumstances can lead to nightmarish outcomes. There are documented disasters – even deaths. One river raft adventure for executives resulted in five dead.
But, in fairness, river rafting is not team building – I’ve done it for a work group and would never do it again. We were more challenged to get through the pre-river stormy night – with the wind and rain blowing tents around like puff balls - than we did all day on the river. River rafting, like going on a roller coaster, is an entertainment. The guide is in charge – the ride operator - and you are a passenger. That changes when you mistakenly venture into a raging river far beyond the guide’s technical ability. Likewise, fire walks (depicted), pamper poles, maybe even shaman-lead sweat lodges can go wrong or they can be life-changing for the individual, but there’s no team building.
Noguchi’s Anecdote 1. Paintballing is a war game; it might work for Special Forces’ team building or if you and your work group never got past playing cops and robbers, but it’s a bad idea for your usual office demographic mix. In the NPR story someone’s shooting a paint ball into the boss’ crotch, accidentally, of course, made this already bad idea worse. The fragging that followed - subordinates shooting supervisors on their own teams - suggests the group needed PTSD counseling more than a day in the woods with weapons.
Anecdote 2. The exploding piñata. The first blindfolded batter smashed a home run – slamming the piñata (labeled with a much hated competitor’s name) with such violence the stuff inside (metal coins) shrapneled around the room injuring several. In shock, no one picked up any of the so-called “blood money”. My advice: save the piñata for kid birthdays and then only fill it with soft candy
Anecdote 3. The magic mushroom adventure. This CEO had his own ideas on team building. He passed out hallucinogens to the participants. Everybody got high. Amazing. Getting stoned did have a bonding effect among the staff; after the company failed – do you wonder? – the staff continues to stay in touch with each other.
If you want adventure learning to be effective and useful, then recruit only volunteers. The outdoor team building I did was for volunteers only. Expect about 20% to be interested. But, that’s enough to introduce change into an organization. The 20% will have a camaraderie, a risk taking perspective, a “Yes, I can” attitude that most of the stay-at-home 80% lacks. That 20% returning to the office – with a supportive leader – will lead change for the better.
When someone volunteers to spend a day in the woods, there’s a pre-disposition toward individual growth. And, that’s the secret team building companies do not want you to know. Adventure based learning is not about team building; it is about the individual seeing himself or herself in a new light. It’s about the open-minded individual thinking about what is happening and how what happens relates to him or her, how what they fail or succeed at can be transferred to work relationships.
So, if you have a disdain for adventure-based learning don’t go - the group’s better off if you are not there. And, you wouldn’t get in the way of another person’s decision to go, would you?

@Copyright 2014 John Lubans

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