If this were two years ago, before I retired from my company after a 35-year career, I’d be knee-deep in planning for the dreaded annual summer team-building retreat. A colleague and I would be racking our brains to come up with “icebreakers,” the term of art for thought-provoking conversation starters. We’d be pondering discussion topics and, most crucially, scheming group activities aimed at achieving that delicate balance of being intellectually and/or physically challenging and at the same time promoting camaraderie.

Our boss wanted us all to bond and come home as “collegial friends.” By that he meant that we’d respect each other, become familiar with one another on a personal level, that we’d be willing to open up and put our most frank and controversial opinions on the table and, above all, that we’d “always assume positive intent.”

Spoiler alert: I’ve been attending and organizing team-building retreats for more than three decades, and they never do all that. Not for very long, anyway. Corporate teams, like the human organism itself,  have set points, like our body weight, or even the serotonin levels in our brains that control our moods. They may get nudged nearer to optimal every once in a while, but they always return.

Managing Expectations

I’m not suggesting that team-building retreats are useless, although many are. But it’s important to have realistic expectations and not to believe everything you read about the power of team-building. For example, that it can give a thunderous jolt to your employee engagement and send your profits through the roof. I worked in the pharmaceutical industry. In my world, fantastic employee engagement and no blockbuster drugs would get you two things: layoffs and takeover bids. On the other hand,  poor engagement could be offset by a few billion-dollar sellers, which were a sure bet to make you a shareholders darling, until the patents expired with nothing behind them in the pipeline, and then you were back on the chopping block.

Sure, that’s an over-simplification, but there’s a lot of painful truth in it that you won’t come across in articles with titles like “9 Insanely Funny Team-Building Activities for Work,” or “63 Team-Building Activities That Your Team Won’t Roll Their Eyes At” (if they have brains, they will).

I hate to sound like the jaded, crotchety old pensioner that I am, but when it comes to team-building retreats, I’ve seen it all. To be honest, I think the best team-building event I ever went to was my very first, and it went down hill from there, with a couple of noteworthy exceptions. 

From the Best…

When I began my job, in the summer of 1982, the boss invited us to a summer meeting – I don’t think we used the term “team-building” yet – at the New Jersey shore. We sat on a beach blanket and enjoyed the sand, sun, and sea together, and later on, gathered in a hotel conference room to talk about the coming business environment and plan our goals for the following year. In the evening we enjoyed drinks and conversation, had a nice seafood dinner and then turned in for the night. The next day we drove home, feeling refreshed and clear about what we’d try to accomplish when we got back to the office.

Then, somewhere in the early 90s, the Outward Bound-type team-building experience broke out like a virus, populating forests and mountain trails with armies of corporate employees whose management had been convinced of the connections between nature-survival skills and organizational effectiveness in business. From my encounters with this phenomenon, I’ve learned there are three kinds of people in the world: those who thrive on this sort of experience and claim to enjoy and benefit from it; those who can take it or leave it or go along with it out of apathy (and because it sure beats work!); and those who’d rather take a bath in a tub of hot coals than bare a minute of Outward Bound nonsense with co-workers. Count me among the latter group.

I told myself when I turned 55 that I’d never subject myself to another one of those stupid, departmental whack-off sessions ever again. I’d paid my dues, done my time and earned my right to refuse. But by the time the bus pulled out, I always punked out, convincing myself to be a good sport and show once again that I was a team player.

… to the Worst

Thus I found myself, circa 2010, at my company’s conference center in the midst of a lovely wooded area beside a lake, engaged in one of the most embarrassing, useless, lame-brained, bone-headed episodes of my otherwise professional life: the Spider Web Exercise. Described by proponents as “one of the most powerful exercises for teaching High Performance Team principles,” this preposterous perpetrator of the theft of three hours of my life that I’ll never get back, might have been remotely helpful if I were one of the Navy Seals attempting the recent rescue of that ill-fated soccer team of young boys from Thailand. But for a guy who works in communications at an international drug company, it was as practical as silly putty, and a lot less fun. Not to mention it being a recipe for inappropriate groping.

A web of heavy-duty rope is woven across a span of around 10 meters connected by two trees. The web’s design includes lots of small spaces and a few large enough for a person to fit through, with some of them higher up on the web and others lower. Two teams compete against one another to see which one can complete the challenge first.

A web of heavy-duty rope is woven across a span of around 10 meters connected by two trees. The web’s design includes lots of small spaces and a few large enough for a person to fit through, with some of them higher up on the web and others lower. Two teams compete against one another to see which one can complete the challenge first.

The objective is to figure out how to get every team member through the various larger spaces without touching the web with any part of anyone’s body or clothing. Each time a person passes through one of the holes, it’s sealed shut with cloth and can’t be used again. So you have to match the bigger, heavier team members to the lower holes that they can crawl through, maybe with some help, and lift lighter co-workers through the higher spaces in the web.

It’s hard to figure out, and even harder to concentrate, especially if you’re contemplating how you’re going to catch and carry one particularly voluptuous co-worker, who’s looking bewildered on the other side of the web, with the ample upper part of her torso already spilling out of her spandex top before the Godforsaken exercise has even begun. Gingerly lifted by colleagues, she’s slowly pushed through the meager space into my waiting arms, and I hold my breath, and whatever legal parts of her I can manage to balance steadily in my grasp, and lower her ever so delicately to the ground as if she were an expensive package of Swarovski crystal.

Like all uncomfortable experiences, this one eventually came to a merciful end and our team got everyone through the infernal web. What were our “learnings”? That developing and executing strategies to address complex challenges is difficult, that things never go as planned and alternatives must be generated quickly, and that multiple heads are better than one. How did I apply those learnings to my work in practical ways afterward? From this exercise, not a whit.

A few years later, at a much better retreat, we were serenaded by a talented string quartet. Why? They had convinced some high-powered CEO who’d seen them perform at the Davos Economic Summit that there was a wealth of teamwork wisdom hidden in the nonverbal cues they transmitted to one another to achieve perfection every time they picked up their instruments. After watching and listening to them for a while, we were asked which was the leader, how did we know, what methods of communication between them could we detect?

The music was sublime, the conversation was fascinating, the musicians were admirable and articulate and committed to the beauty of their work, which didn’t seem like work at all.

Did the experience change, improve or leave any lasting impact on my own work? Not really. But it was a great experience to have at a team-building meeting – for me, and every other member of the team, as far as I could tell.

Lessons Learned

So here are a few of the key takeaways from my experience:

  1. When it comes to team-building retreats, less is more. All it takes is a nice place, some good food, and wine, downtime to relax as colleagues and work time to address real-world issues.
  2. Ice-breakers are for ships like the Titanic, and how did that work out? Don’t waste time asking adults to “share” with one another how they want to die, or what their personal motto is, or what their most embarrassing experience in college was. Don’t make it easier for them to find things to hate or ridicule. That they can do that on their own, and will.
  3. Want them to be able to achieve high performance in the real world? Give them real-world issues to discuss, real-world problems to solve – practical topics discussed from a practical perspective. Spider webs are for the exterminator to deal with – not your team.
  4. Determined to do something creative? Just remember that you’re dealing with adults, professionals – not kindergarten children or teenagers at their first overnight camp.

PostScript

The sarcasm, cynicism, and snark hurled at team-building retreats in this article are solely the sentiments of the writer and do not reflect the true feelings of the author as a human being. For him, having come to the end of his long and ultimately fulfilling corporate life, memories of work – good and bad team-building experiences included – provide nourishment, like a meal with old friends who may not always have been at their best, but who nevertheless always tried their hardest and eventually earned his assumption of positive intent, even when they didn’t live up to his expectations.


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Martin D. Hirsch
Martin Hirsch started building his own communications consulting practice in 2017 after a career spanning almost 35 years with one of the world’s leading international healthcare groups. He’s led internal and external corporate communications, brand and reputation management, and crisis and issue management. Working in both the United States and Europe, he has advised multiple CEOs and collaborated with colleagues all over the world. Martin’s strengths include executive consulting, strategic message development, content marketing, storytelling, communications training, public speaking, mentoring talent, and inspiring organizations to advance beyond their limitations.Lately he’s been helping clients by writing keynote speeches for top executives, developing strategies for pitching new business and explaining complex issues, ranging from how to apply new digital health tools in the pharmaceuticals industry to making sense of the rapid and complex changes challenging employees to maintain their equilibrium at major corporations. Martin also works as a faculty adviser at the New York University School of Professional Studies, helping graduate students with their Capstone Papers. His speaking engagements have included presentations at the IABC World Conference, the European Association of Communications Directors Summit, the Corporate Communications International Leaders Forum, the European Commission Communications Directorate and the Rotterdam School of Business Reputation Forum Netherlands. More recently, he was a panelist at the Healthcare Businesswomen's Association conference on expat issues held at Pfizer headquarters in New York. Martin’s writing, including essays, letters and poems, has appeared in newspapers and magazines in the U.S. and Europe. You can read his blog on MUSE-WORTHY, here on BIZCATALYST 360°. He received the American Association of Journalists and Authors 2018 Writing Award for Best Personal Story Blog.
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