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

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,’

confides Rayner.

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,’

says Williams.

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.’



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

de Costa.

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.

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