The most insightful team-building exercise that telecom sales executive Paul Garvey ever participated in involved paintball - and left people’s feelings as sore as their bruised muscles and bloody lips at game’s end. Various sales representatives at his former company poached each other’s deals and their manager played favourites. Someone decided paintball would help. “You have to have an excuse from your doctor to get out of these things,” says the soft-spoken 49-year-old.
So the sales representatives donned full-length paintball armour and were divided into two teams that, curiously, followed the same pecking order that had polluted the office in the first place. “The event had successfully forged the deep personal divides we’d hoped to dissolve,” says Garvey, who would have preferred some open dialogue and tequila shots.
Maury Dahn, who used to be a vice president for a contractor on an Apollo space project, was asked by HR to have his team participate in a role-playing game where the team had to return safely from the North Pole. They had managed helping astronauts return safely from space in real life, so the time and money spent on the exercise bugged him. “It just came across as a childish exercise,” he says.
How’s this for a corporate New Year’s resolution: Lose the goofy team-building exercises. You can learn a lot from such company events, which take you out of the office and onto ropes courses, bowling alleys and white-water rafts. Research shows good team dynamics greatly improve performance and these events can be meaningful metaphors for teamwork. But too often, the most memorable job metaphors include blindfolds, swamped boats and groin injuries. It’s easy to do team-building poorly and easier to think it went really well.
After all, everyone in a “trust fall”, falling backward blindfolded, lands safely in the arms of their colleagues. It proves only that colleagues prefer not to be sued.
Ron Roberts, an author and the president of Action Centered Training, offers a vast menu of team-building exercises, such as the High Energy and Outdoor Challenges, which includes paintball (to teach teamwork and communication), white-water rescue of river guides (to help with management change), Nascar racing (for leadership and process improvement), a team-cuisine event in which people have to cook a seven-course meal without recipes (bonding) and Inflatable Olympics. That programme includes bumper boats, obstacle courses, bungee cords and a full-body suit that allows you to hurl yourself against a Velcro wall and stick to it. The Velcro stick might do little for team building, but it’s a good metaphor for the office.
Some participants find these outings amusing. “They make us feel good,” says Margaret Neale, professor of organizational behaviour at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. “What they don’t do is improve team performance.”
Team-building proponents counter that valuable principles operate in any number of games and can boost performance. Roberts says paintball may have little to do with an actual job, but it’s powerful. Winning requires working as a team and communicating loudly. “If they don’t work as a team, they get shot and experience pain. It’s not for everybody,” he adds. “But the principles of communication, teamwork, leadership and strategic planning are there.”
Games he has developed include Managing Change, where people divided into teams stand on a huge Chinese Checkers board and try to get as many team members as possible to cross from one side to the other, and then do it again. This helps “strategic planning, redefining teams, managing process breakdown,” among other things, he says.
“Learning is sometimes optional from their perspective,” admits Roberts of clients who sometimes aren’t looking to improve performance. Still, he is big on debriefing, handouts and follow-up. Even if they aren’t fond of it, “a lot of bonding happens” among people who think it is ridiculous, he says.
One of his customers, Robert Rynkiewicz, a trainer for Merck, says the value “is in breaking down barriers” between people. Sceptics often come around and appreciate knowing more about their colleagues’ personal lives.
Others don’t. After Tim Pyle witnessed colleagues “trashed on a dance floor” of a sales team cruise, he concluded that “some barriers are for our own protection”.
Some managers who work for Pushpendra Mohta, founder of a high-tech company, have asked him to take their teams on trips for paintball and go-karts. Although he has participated in karaoke (“awkward”) and trust falls (“staged”), the only thing that has worked for him is sequestering rival teams in a hotel for a week in a neutral city. But he showed up for the go-karts outing. “Everybody has a good time,” he says. “Whether that does anything for the basic problem is another issue.”
Similar doubts overcame Jane Vawter, an information-technology consultant, who was chastised for avoiding skydiving and paintball. Forced to do team athletics, she hated the fake nature of the exercises— especially that you can’t ever beat your boss—and didn’t accomplish the main goal. Says Vawter: “I wanted a different team.”
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