The notion, often presented in popular culture of team building is outdoors, in the cold and discomfort, playing meaningless games, at which one person or persons can shine, to the belittlement of all others. An experience to be avoided at best and endured at worst.
I have to say this has been my personal experience as well. A recent activity got me thinking about this and in discussion with several other people, their responses ranged from a horrified shiver, to “I’m not good at team building,” “it’s not for me,” and “avoid it at all costs.” That left me wondering, why should something that aims to promote group cohesion be seen in such a detrimental way by so many people?
I decided to review the team building sessions I had attended or been an observer of and consider some of the draw backs of team building and why they may occur.
I started with one of my recent experiences. As a group we were asked to decide which six items we would rescue from a plane wreckage in the rainforest from a variety offered. We had a discussion them presented the answer to someone who had the “right” answers, who provided his judgement of the group based on this.
OK so far, sounds a bit of fun, nothing too concerning, and yet why was this such a negative experience? Upon consideration I concluded that;
- This was a form of closed questioning. There was clearly a right and wrong answer, and prior knowledge would stand you in good stead. As someone who has undertaken bushcraft and survival training, I found this easy to do, considering the rule of threes; (you can survive three minutes without air, 3 hours without shelter, 3 days without water and 3 weeks without food). However, this very knowledge upset the balance of discussion, and aware as I was of this simply acted as a way of holding me back from fully participating in the group.
- My next concern was that a judgement was made based on the outcome. For example, in this situation, we were compared to other groups who had got it wrong. – They had chosen to take microwave meals (we took biscuits based on the fact they could be eaten as they were and were higher calorific value), They took matches (we didn’t, I am not bad at lighting fires without matches!) These examples of others failing was commented on very negatively by the leader. I am never comfortable when others are put down. I have seen far too often that the “others” will more often than not turn in to “you” – or anyone who isn’t present. Therefore, this simply added to the sense of insecurity and distrust.
- We were criticised for some items that were taken (flare gun), but as the main items needed could be done in just three or four items, the rest was just padding. We were not given any chance to explore this - that would fall outside the closed nature of the game. It was merely noted as being wrong.
- I asked the leader what he would have taken – his answer was a compass. However, I pointed out that just as lighting a fire could be done without matches, so navigating could be done without a compass, so if a group was criticised for one item, why was an equivalent one correct? We were not given an answer to this, but I was left with a very strong feeling that asking a question and criticising the leader was unacceptable behaviour, so rather than being a space to develop ideas it was a space to underline a given hierarchy.
- Finally, I believed the person leading it lacked the real knowledge to develop this or to be able to critically analyse his own responses. He had learnt to deliver the game and had a nice patter in why things do or don’t work, but not the deep learning needed to really take the concept on board. This came across in his own insecurity and distrust of others.
So how about some of the other experiences I had been witness to. After all many sessions can be lead by very competent people, and most participants don’t have a penchant for questioning them. Given this I reviewed some areas of concern. These fell into four different areas;
I was once asked to observe a group who had been asked to create a shelter. There were 7 in the group who had a very quick discussion, that was very demonstrative – it involved lots of gestures, moving to a site and just getting started. One lady however clearly didn’t quite follow the groups’ ideas. She asked for clarification, but none was forthcoming. I believed this wasn’t through any deliberate attempt to exclude this person, rather, as they all understood and didn’t feel the questions, or their answers were necessary. However this lack of communication, and lack of real understanding led to quite an upsetting experience for the person involved, who far from feeling the team was being built up, felt she was very much on the edge of the whole experience, and was unable to take part.
This follows hot on the heels of communication. If we approach tasks from different points, including different ways to communicate, why do so many team building activities try to level the field and present a single unified task? By doing this the team quickly, subconsciously and consciously ranks themselves against one another. Who is best, who gets things done quickly, who can dominate.
I was observing another group who were working with tools – in this case axes. Each stepped forward to have a go. I noticed one particular person who held back looking distinctly nervous. Once everyone else had had a go she stepped forward. Now between you and me, she was bad!!! Her swing was weak, her aim worse and her technique non-existent. Considering this was probably the first time she had ever done anything like this, that isn’t surprising, and not why it stuck with me. That was the reaction of some of her colleagues. Nothing was said, but glances were exchanged, eyes rolled, and there was clearly a feeling of typical – why do we have to be stuck with her? I wasn’t alone in observing this – she saw it as well. That was clear.
There seems to be a message given out in these situations that you must be the best and be popular to succeed. It feels like a return to school – only the “in” crowd matter. Those who struggle, who are on the edge of the social interactions, who approach things in a unique manner, well, they are not what is wanted.
In some team building activities there is no allowance for individuality, and indeed the self is seen as something to sacrifice for the team. Effectively the message appear that individuals lack worth, working alone is wrong, and yet many, many tasks are better performed alone, and sometime the lynch pin of an organisation is someone who works best alone.
Undervaluing the Individual
- “He’s such a loner”
- “I am so worried she is often alone”
- “He likes to be alone, I have tried to change that”
- “She has no close friends”
I work with schools and these are some of the comments I have heard, and they are not limited to schools! People are very concerned about others being alone. I get this. We are a social animal and it is natural that we should be concerned if someone seems lonely. And yet being alone doesn’t mean lonely. I remember one person talking about their daughter, whose teacher had called them in as they were concerned she had no close friends. She was outraged. Her daughter was happy, liked by most of her class and never had thought about being lonely. Yet the teacher had picked her out as having a “problem.” This is not limited to schools: working alone, going for a walk during lunch time, not joining in office gossip and not going to office “socials” have all been highlighted as evidence of undesirable behaviours, and requiring team building, and greater integration, greater movement toward a unified centre. Yet is a loner a problem, or is the problem that the loner is different, can’t be easily managed in the same way or reacts in diverse ways? Does team building help this situation, or does it, like the teacher in the example above create an issue that isn’t there? Does it tell the individual they need to change, and cannot be valued as they are?
Using Team building as a cull
On talking to a friend, they told me about an example of team building being used as a means of making a promotion decision. An exercise was given where the candidates were observed as a team. The best would be recruited to a higher role in charge of the others. Now given that any interview is stressful, and you are all too aware that it is a direct competition, team building is hardly a useful tool! In this situation are you getting the person who could manage others on a long term basis, who could balance different concerns or the person who can effectively suppress and manipulate?
Finally does your team really need “building”
I worked with the volunteers of a small charity once. Certain issues had been raised and it was believed that the volunteers needed “team building.” The member of staff who contacted me spoke of “needing change,” “moving on” and “redressing the balance.” “We need to shake them up and move beyond the comfort zone.” These were great platitudes and ones I have often heard. I spoke to both the volunteers and the staff to find out a bit more. It became clear that everyone thought they were undervalued, were not listened to and their contribution was ignored. I took the decision that team building was not the first stop. Here was a group who professed to value one another but this wasn’t coming across. Team building was seen as a sticking plaster to mend something. Yet on looking I was unsure anything was really broken.
I decided to take a different approach. I have trained as a mindfulness teacher, which focuses on people stopping, and with kindness holding in deliberate awareness what was there without judgement. I wondered how this would look for a business……
To be continued!