How do you solve a problem like the EC?
December 20, 2016
Team building in the conference room.
April 7, 2017

Give a man enough rope courses….

Well I’m back from a very efficient holiday in Germany and the surroundings and as promised I have some happier and less contentious things to talk about this time around. Specifically, I want to talk about teamwork.

In my discussion on workplace Cassandras I touched on the idea that it is crucial for a manager to understand the workplace personalities of his or her team. It is very common in companies nowadays to administer psychological personality tests to their key employees in order to get a nice clean “Archetype Stamp” to put on each person’s file. The Meyers-Briggs and DiSC assessments are extremely popular for this and be sure I’ll have something to say about these in a future post. However, what tends to be overlooked is that these archetypes do not exist in a vacuum.

To use Meyers Briggs as an example, is it a problem if the perceived lowest ranking member is an ENTP? They’re infamous debaters and big picture thinkers. Depending on the environment that person could be your font of new brilliance or an argumentative dick. You have an ISJT in a middle management position, they have a reputation for efficiency, and also officiousness. Maybe you need an INFJ to keep them from becoming mired in the wrong kind of procedure but that “I” does stand for introvert and he or she may be too non-confrontational to do that.

And of course, there is the fact that in reality there are more than 16 kinds of people.

Ultimately that means that the best way to see how your team works is to watch your team working, and that brings us around to team building exercises. “Team building?” I might hear you say with incredulity, “I thought we were talking about team dynamics.” We are, and there is no better way to see that play out then to put your team in a non-work related situation and see how it plays out. At work they have their firmly defined roles and tasks to fall back on when any uncertainty hits, not so when you remove that safety net. They just have themselves and each other.

I have done a lot of team building activities over the years and organized quite a few myself and I’d like to say a few things about the different kinds of activities I have seen.

By far the most common is the “let’s just out of the office and do something as a group” sort of activity. Under the guise of team building I’ve been on walks where I’ve said almost nothing to my team mates, I’ve played every man for himself mini-golf and I’ve played team bowling. That last is probably the worst as the team element of bowling is thin indeed and at the end you have nice little card telling you which member of the team was weakest and thus why you lost. It was me. At least when we went rock climbing there was an element of trust to what is otherwise a solitary experience. These are not team building activities. You can call them moral boosters, if you like, or stress busters. Maybe you can pitch them as a reward for completing some major project but don’t fool yourself, no team has ever gotten stronger by building sandcastles or taking a leisurely inner tube trip down a local river.

Next you have the “Extreme!” activities, paintball and whitewater rafting seem to be the most common. Now let me be frank, I love both of those! I will talk your ear off about the time I played in Total War Sydney, 500+ paintballers across 6 acres for an entire day. It was brilliant, and I only learned about it because I had organized a paintball teambuilding activity for my boss’s team a few weeks before. Did it work as an activity? You bet it did. We learned all kinds of things about the people we worked with. We learned about who would repeat something that worked over and over, who was always trying something new, who was willing to go insane risk for a high reward (17 second victory in capture the flag speaks for itself), and most importantly who people listen to. In short, by the end of the day the natural leaders become clear, but so does their leadership style.

The downside of these sorts of activities is that they really are not for everyone. Maybe there are health issues at play, maybe it’s simply a temperamental thing but you don’t want to force someone into something like this against their will. So, I’d suggest floating the idea around before booking anything.

One other suggestion specifically about paintball, be nice and let those hard-working lower ranked employees who do the grunt work of organizing this for you be your team captains. Let them pick their teams schoolyard style and I promise you’ll get some amusing surprises.

Related to the extreme activities are the so-called Ropes Courses, also called challenge courses, adventure courses and a number of other things. They’re basically an obstacle course, frequently elevated, designed to challenge your fears and build trust and teamwork somehow.  Nobody likes ropes courses. The Venn diagram of people who like ropes courses and people who own ropes courses is a single perfect circle. The military uses them for training and the scouts also does a version but the kind marketed as team building is less about fitness and coordination than it is about having platitudes spewed at you by a time displaced hippie while being made to feel vaguely uncomfortable in the name of breaking down barriers.

I’m not a fan.

I am a fan of… oh, I’m running out of space. Next time we’ll talk about my favorite kind of team building. It’s fun, it’s cheap, and you can get a lot of mileage out of it.