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June 24, 2010 / Ben Chun

Team Building

You’re working on a project with new people, from different backgrounds, in a foreign country, defining objectives on the fly… it’s inevitable. No, no, not conflict. Teambuilding exercises. This is corporate America’s nod to the fact that jobs are done by actual human beings, and it’s a favorite of middle-managers and nonprofit directors alike. The modern teambuilding exercise is a unique blend that can be part pop psychology, part large group awareness training, part motivational speech, and part ropes course. I want to like the idea, very generally, because I think it’s important to have a common vocabulary to talk about interpersonal interactions, it’s important to be conscious of power dynamics and group dynamics, and because communication styles do matter. But teambuilding (and people who consult on it for a living) almost always seems to rub me the wrong way in practice.

I don’t know if something’s wrong with me, or if I’m built to be a cynic, or if I’m jetlagged, or if this is something like my resistance to unhelpful professional development, but I almost always find these activities grating instead of rewarding. Usually, an hour of talk behind closed doors does a lot more for me than a day of this stuff. Granted, being on the other side of the table is harder than being a critic, and playing to an unknown and potentially very wide audience is rough. But I’m the one holding down the skeptical end of that audience. At least throw a bone over here to acknowledge that some people are aware of psychology as an actual field of study, not merely a set of papers from which to cherry-pick examples and truisms that suit a presentation. I’d be much happier to go along with whatever games and plans if that worldview were at least recognized in the process.

I assume that most adults have seen a Myers-Briggs personality assessment, and that they understand that it’s a little more like a horoscope and a little less like a blood sugar test. (We didn’t do anything with Myers-Briggs today, but it’s an example of the kind of tool that is often brought in to teambuilding workshops.) After seeing so many frameworks and metaphors and theories trotted out, it gets tiresome. I’d rather talk about the actual issues, or be given a prompt that clearly pushes toward some issues, and then bring in whatever frameworks are appropriate or useful as the conversation or action unfolds. After all, we’re not here to serve these abstract ideas. Presumably they were thought up in order to help us.

One more nit: Midstream references to further work that a consultant could do with a given group always raise the conflict-of-interest hairs on the back of my neck. It’s like a doctor recommending a patient get further tests at a lab he owns. Why do something that could create even the appearance of impropriety?

Beyond these questions of personal style and perspective is a question of efficacy: How do you know if the money spent on a teambuilding consultant is a good investment? What could you do with those funds if someone in-house were to step up to a facilitation role? Clearly sometimes you need an outside voice (or target) but how do you make that judgement call? I suppose I shouldn’t be second-guessing anyone from the back seat, but as long as we’re mixing metaphors, I find it hard to stay out of the kitchen.

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