Picture the scene... I'm standing on a table in a conference room, arms wrapped around myself, eyes closed. Someone is holding me firmly by the shoulders, tipping me forward. A small group of colleagues (or, should I say, former colleagues) are gathered around me. "Now, just let yourself fall," says my captor. "Trust your team mates. They will catch you..."
I hesitate for a moment, resisting the gentle but insistent pressure threatening to up-end me. Then, reluctantly, I relax into it. I start to fall... hands grasp at me, briefly slowing my descent, then... clunk! I hit the floor with a thump.
I'm sure this wasn't the intended outcome of the exercise but, in a funny way, the main objective was still achieved. By failing to break my fall, my team mates certainly broke the ice. I wasn't hurt, and everyone fell about laughing. But I noticed that no one was quick to volunteer to be the next victim!
The trouble with some team building exercises is that, by taking people outside their comfort zones, they also have the potential to violate their dignity, privacy or personal space. They also fail to appreciate that what might be fun for some could be hell for others.
When my best friend told me that she wanted her girlfriends to help her celebrate her forthcoming marriage by joining her coasteering (basically, jumping off cliffs into the sea), I was terrified by the prospect. I usually love "the great outdoors," and I'm generally pretty fearless. In my university years, I was an accredited abseiling instructor, but that was a long, long time ago... before I had dependents who rely on me!
As it turned out, I wasn't the only one who would have felt a lot happier about a traditional spa weekend. One of our gang is really scared of heights. When the instructor told us that we would be lowering each other down the crevasse (as you can see in the picture above) with just a long rope and some clever knots, we all felt nervous, but my friend visibly trembled.
I'll never forget how brave she was that day, and the tears of relief she cried when it was all over were bittersweet for all of us. It also demonstrates how something that could be a bonding activity among close friends might be wholly inappropriate for work colleagues.
That's not to say that there's no value in team building activities at work. The right activity can bring your team together, help people to work more effectively in a group, aid communication, and strengthen all sorts of skills. So, how do you know if an activity is the right one?
Aside from the issues described above, one of the most common criticisms of team building exercises is that they have little bearing on what people do in their jobs every day. At Mind Tools, we've created a series of resources that address this, focusing on creativity, problem solving and decision making, and communication.
So, the next time you ask your team to take a "trust fall," or arrange for them to go paint balling at your next away day, ask yourself if it will really achieve your objective. Or would something else be more "team-friendly"?