Teambuilding: Tantrums, trials and tipsy employees

I’ve worked in some of the UK’s most successful companies and loved it, most of the time.

However, the trend for team-building during my decade or so in these corporations illicits the equivalent of road rage in me, I call it my ‘Teambuilding Temper’ – you mention teambuilding and I feel like having a terrible twos temper tantrum.

Why is it that HR/senior management feel that the answer to any number of business conundrums is to trek the team up a mountain with only flip-flops on, build a raft out of empty beer barrels you’ve had to empty but not drink or build a Lego tower with one hand tied behind your back? It’s one of life’s mysteries and one I’ve tried to understand over the years. Having predominantly failed in this task, the best I can do, is offer you a selection of my personal teambuilding experiences that made me go from 0-Temper in less than ten seconds but that may offer you some comfort and let you know that, if you feel the same, you are not alone…

It’s like watching the Titanic: Ice-breaking exercises

These are the exercises at the beginning of every teambuilding course designed make you all relax and enable you to get to know each other. Invariably they will involve one or more cheesy and marginally irritating exercises. For example, throwing a ball to each other and when you catch it you have to say your name and something interesting about yourself.

Over the years everyone in the corporate world has done this at least once a year for the duration of their career and, therefore, the facilitators have had to come up with more complex and ‘exciting’ versions. Commonly extended to delivering a presentation on the bloke next to you, joint tasks in twos or threes that are often as about as comfortable as a game of teenage spin the bottle or, my favourite, thinking up many things that are and aren’t true about yourself so that everyone can guess which ones are which.

For the self aware, the latter is a superb journey of discovery about how your colleagues perceive you. When they guess the lie is you don’t go the gym every day, what they mean is that you’re lazy and probably a bit on the portly side. When they think you have six cats, they mean they don’t think you have enough of a personality at work to snag any friends to go out with. And you have to suffer all of these things, stood at the front of the room, going “Oooh, good guess, but actually I do go to the gym everyday and I don’t have six cats,” as the delegates pull non-discrete surprised faces at each other.

Amateur dramatics: Restructure role play

Change in any organisation is a difficult time and often a necessary evil. However, my teambuilding temper really surfaces when they try and conquer everyone’s fear of the unknown – and many redundancies – by engaging all of us in, what is basically, a bad A’ Level drama exercise. Why not make people sit in a room and play out an improvised I’m making you redundant scenario? Especially if afterwards the two guinea pigs get to guess how the other person should be feeling and discuss as a group. Then rinse and repeat until the whole group resembles a group of cats that have simultaneously fallen into a bath.

Going for Gold: The Group Exercise

Whether you’ve been part of a recruitment assessment centre or a team building event, The Group Exercise is fascinating in all its forms. I’ve done so many I don’t even know where to begin. The themes of my many group exercises have included launching a new car, building a Lego tower, building a raft (obviously), running a school’s budget and organising the restoration of a canal. Once you’ve celebrated a group exercise anniversary of more than 50, you start to get the hang of what most of the observers (people with clipboards/the facilitator taking notes to report back) are looking for.
Few companies that want a person that takes over and rides roughshod over everyone just so they can achieve the task, they want someone who will ‘lead from behind’. An ideal employee often seems to be PCP (politically correct Percy).

PCP clarifies the task in hand, establishes the scope of works, the timescales and the skill sets within the group and guides the team with consistent and encouraging phrases, includes and engages with those that aren’t contributing and makes them feel valued. PCP is a caring chap, as well as one that has one eye on the company budget and another on the clock at all times – and helps the team to remember both. PCP won’t take the credit for his brilliant guidance and, if asked by the clipboard afflicted, he’ll nod modestly to the team and say “We’re all winners, everyone did a brilliant job.” And, if you too can turn into a PCP at will, then you’ll also be able to go home and tell your friends that you just nailed the latest teambuilding exercise.

All of these teambuilding trials hinge on several core principles which, frankly, I dispute:
1. That it helps us do our job to know that Marjorie from Purchasing makes clothes for dogs in her leisure time.
2. That we want to share our personal lives with our colleagues and ensure that we have no boundaries left in our eroded work:life balance.
3. That making the team hike up a Welsh mountain will make us all love each other and improve our team’s productivity, as opposed to reward the stereotypical sporty alpha male and ostracise and de-motivate the physically unfit – however good they may be at their desk-based office job.
4. That providing hospitality after the equivalent challenge to taking part in I’m a celebrity, get me out of here and expecting us not to enjoy it, isn’t very realistic. If you give a group of knackered, underpaid corporate workers free alcohol away from their husbands, wives, children and significant others, most of us will have too much. Is it really our fault if we flash our boobs to Bob from Accounts or make a pass at Amanda from Payroll? And should it really be raised in our appraisal?

If I sound exasperated, it’s perhaps because I am, just a little bit. I’m so glad I have had my own business for the last seven years. Now I don’t have to suffer fools at all, let alone gladly. Don’t get me wrong, we all need to work alongside a team we trust and respect, and it makes the day more pleasurable if you can enjoy each other’s company. However, it’s not beyond the wit of man to realise that rewarding your team with praise or pound notes, ensuring a good work:life balance and a fair management style might also help the team’s productivity and performance.

I’ve suffered through drunken karaokes (mine and others), Director-level dirty dancing (someone dared me – what could I do?) and many, many, many other disastrous consequences of team building away days. On the upside, perhaps HR/senior management were right in part. My colleagues did often return from such events with more motivation – they could always look at me and think, at least I’m not her… and that’s pretty motivating.

Have you experienced some deeply disturbing teambuilding fun too? If so, I promise you, it can help to share… Email me your trauma’s to Business Matters and I’ll write about them next year.


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