OF HUMAN BONDING: Are team-building courses valuable weekends away or conflict-causing nightmares? Colin Grimshaw enters the world of raft making and penguin suits
By COLIN GRIMSHAW, campaignlive.co.uk, Monday, 06 December 1999 12:00AM
You’re asked to go on a team-building course. An all-expenses-paid couple of days out of the office at a hotel in the country sounds inviting.
You’re asked to go on a team-building course. An all-expenses-paid
couple of days out of the office at a hotel in the country sounds
The opportunity to shoot that tosser in client sales, if only with a
paint gun, adds to the appeal.
Your boss thinks the experience will induce camaraderie and bond you
into a force to be reckoned with. But do team-building courses really
work? Or do they merely foster conflict and animosity?
And even if that mission to construct a pontoon bridge with a couple of
oil drums doesn’t end up in a fist fight, aren’t any serious bonding
objectives usually overtaken by the urge to get to the bar?
Sales executives who have attended courses with their bosses relate
tales of desperate promotion-seekers trying to impress by scoring points
against colleagues. Even if it means shooting them. ’The ambitious types
all wanted to be team leader and make themselves look good,’ recalls one
course delegate from a consumer magazine.
These days, wannabe commandos who fancy themselves in fatigues and
camouflage are likely to be disappointed. Paint-gun battles and
daredevil activities like walking on hot coals have largely been
consigned to history. For most companies, team-building is now about
challenging the brain rather than the body.
To discourage career-ladder climbing, most use outside organisers and
make it clear that promotion is not on the agenda.
Some, such as Emap Business Communications and the Daily Mail, still
favour an outward-bound approach, with challenges designed to make the
team work as a unit. The Guardian, perhaps unsurprisingly, prefers to
explore the personality traits of each individual and observe group
psychodynamics in a classroom setting.
Capital Radio’s approach is more offbeat and almost certainly a lot more
fun. The broadcaster took its staff to Ruthin Castle in Wales during the
weekend of the Rugby World Cup final for an appropriately themed ’team
spirit’ bonding session. The staff were divided into squads, each with a
coach, representing all the World Cup nations. Will Carling gave the
squads one of his legendary pep talks before they were pitted against
each other in a series of often surreal tests, including karaoke, It’s a
Knockout, talent contests and music quizzes.
Media strategist Lizzie Pittal found that the most successful teams had
the greatest diversity of talents. ’Ours included a skilled paper-hat
maker, a juggler, a rapper, a tap dancer and a bloke who could down a
pint of beer in five seconds. That stood us in good stead.’
Stuart Hall presented a special edition of It’s a Knockout complete with
props and ridiculous costumes. ’We were dressed in penguin suits and
they started playing the Birdie Song,’ recalls Pittal, without a hint of
At a medieval banquet on the Saturday evening, the squads competed for
more points by dressing up in medieval garb representing their squad’s
national characteristics. This presented something of a challenge for
Pittal’s squad, Argentina, who tested the boundaries of credibility by
dressing up as Latin versions of Robin Hood. Unsurprisingly, England’s
Knights of the Round Table won the contest.
It all sounds like a great laugh - but did they learn anything from it?
’We learned to use individual strengths in a team effort. There’s no ’I’
in team,’ Pittal points out helpfully.
Emap Business Communications goes to one of team-building specialist
Teamscapes’ country house locations for sessions that take place over
two weekdays. Exercises are used to test communication, listening,
assertiveness and that old favourite, ’thinking outside the box’. A
typical exercise may involve being sent to the Japanese water garden,
where team members are challenged to get a tap working using bamboo
pipes. ’The task requires teams to decide objectives, determine
individual skills, allocate tasks and communicate with each other,’ says
EBC training manager Denise Rayner.
Finding solutions to tricky tasks can sometimes lead to conflict within
the team. ’Some people are naturally bossy and there can be a bit of
friction, but they tend to get more frustrated with the co-ordinators,’
The Daily Mail takes its staff to the Lake District and one of training
company Impact’s country house hotels. Needless to say, one of the
challenges involves building a raft and sailing to the other end of a
lake. Another exercise requires teams to lower a brave volunteer down a
cliff on a stretcher.
’Finding a volunteer is usually an interesting debate,’ admits Impact
instructor Dave Williams.
Each team is assigned a tutor who ensures safety and monitors how
individuals have contributed, how they shared ideas and how they worked
as a team.
’We encourage people to do things they wouldn’t normally do at a desk,
but nobody is forced into anything. You don’t have to be an athlete,’
The Guardian eschews fresh air for the delights of the Canonbury Academy
in Islington, to which group heads are sent for more formal team
Training sessions are designed and led by The Guardian’s in-house
training manager, Maria Gatward, with input from senior executives.
Before going on the one-day course, delegates’ personality types are
assessed using the scary-sounding Myers Briggs Type Indicator. They are
given individual feedback on the results and asked what they want to get
out of the course. Employees are not forced to take the personality
test, but most give their consent. They are assured that neither the
results of the personality test nor the outcome of the course are used
in performance reviews or promotion decisions.
The team-building day begins with each delegate making a presentation on
their professional reputation, highlighting their strengths and
Personality types are revealed and opposites are asked what they would
find difficult or complimentary about working with each type.
’When working in teams, a team tends to adopt the most common
personality type, but it is important to assess how the team uses the
minority types,’ explains Gatward.
Teams are then asked to describe the threats and opportunities facing
their department. From this exercise, a business issue is selected to
become the team’s problem for the day. ’We recently looked at the issue
of retaining and developing talent,’ says Gatward. ’The group heads
wanted to explore how their staff could move laterally to get broader
experience, instead of vertically in the same discipline. We took the
conclusions back into the office and made some decisions.’
However, she is keen to point out that the task wasn’t as important as
the way they worked as a team and utilised individuals’ different
The Guardian’s recruitment telesales manager Neil Roberts says: ’I got a
greater understanding of my team’s personality styles and their
preferred way of operating.’ The course has led to a change in The
Guardian’s staff recruitment methods. ’We realised we needed people with
different skill sets,’ says Roberts. ’And we’re now keener to recruit
people with relevant sales experience so that they come with the
It all sounds very rewarding - but surely there was some conflict on the
course? ’Naturally,’ says Roberts, ’but we learned, through looking at
the different personality types, how to deal with it more
constructively.’ And is there any room for individuals? Not according to
Roberts. ’We all have to be team players, we couldn’t run the department
otherwise,’ he says.
But not everybody views team-building so positively. Believe it or not,
some feel nauseous at the thought of being cooped up with colleagues,
engaging in silly games and pointless role play. A dispirited delegate
from a consumer magazine claims that cynicism prevailed on her
’Everybody was brown-nosing. In front of their bosses people would say
how much they’d learned from the weekend but then they’d slag off the
whole thing in the bar. Back in the office on Monday, everyone carried
on with their plotting and backstabbing.’
MEET THE TEAM BUILDERS
Teamscapes, part of the Sun Dial conferences and training group, has
three training sites - Highgate House in Northamptonshire, Barnet Hill
in Surrey and Woodside in Warwickshire.
What they’ll make you do
Teamscapes specialises in outdoor team-building activities using its own
branded games. ’Typically, there will be two games in the morning and
two in the afternoon, with review sessions in the classroom after each
game,’ says Teamscapes worker Jane de Costa.
The games are specifically designed to be solved by teams and carry
names like Crossover, the Sword in the Stone, Minutes to Zero and the
Electric Fence. ’The Electric Fence isn’t actually electrified,’ assures
What your employer shells out
The use of the Teamscapes games for a full day (five games) costs pounds
400 plus VAT or pounds 250 for a half day. All games are provided with
instruction notes and are designed to be self-facilitated. However,
Teamscapes can provide instructors at a negotiable cost. Accommodation,
all meals and the provision of a training room costs pounds 150 plus VAT
per person per night.
Impact organises team-building courses at its three country house hotels
in the Lake District - Merewood, Brierywood and Cragwood - for clients
such as Microsoft, Sony and Manchester United.
What they’ll make you do
A range of outdoor activities are offered including orienteering,
canoeing and rock climbing. Programmes are tailor-made to suit clients’
Course delegates are set outdoor team tasks with the aim of finding more
creative ways to work together and to ’align their individual behaviour
and values with their company’s goals’. After each activity there is a
debriefing. Facilitators assess individuals’ strengths, determine what
they have gained from their experience and help decide how they can use
this in the workplace.
Impact’s sales manager Jonathan Lagoe says: ’We get people out of their
comfort zones, but we make sure no- one does anything dangerous. To
accomplish the tasks, they have to trust each other. The aim is to see
how they can improve team performance.’ What your employer shells
The cost for a team of 20 is between pounds 200 and pounds 250 per day
per delegate for the instruction. For a group of this size, Impact
provides two facilitators and two technicians. A room costs between
pounds 65 and pounds 105 per night plus VAT.
This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk
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