Corporate Team Building: What Are You Missing Out On?

For all our communicating, is anybody really listening? Probably not as much as you think. The guilty parties may even be found in your own building. Loss of morale, physical distance and isolation between departments, rivalries, conflicting personalities and more can all combine to hinder effective communication, which in turn prevents a staff from being as productive as it can be.

Playing with Purpose Team-building exercises set employees on the path to better communication By Jason Dehart Originally published in the Dec 2010/Jan 2011 issue of 850 Business Magazine

Adults think they know how to communicate and work together. They talk to people all day long, closing deals, teleconferencing, videoconferencing, e-mailing, programming, selling, buying, working the phones. They have all kinds of gizmos, doodads and thingamabobs that keep them in constant contact with staff, clients and other contacts. They Tweet about what they had for lunch, then turn on Facebook to gripe about the sushi.

But for all that communicating, is anybody really listening? Probably not as much as you think. The guilty parties may even be found in your own building. Loss of morale, physical distance and isolation between departments, rivalries, conflicting personalities and more can all combine to hinder effective communication, which in turn prevents a staff from being as productive as it can be.

“Communication is the cog in the wheel. It’s at the crux of every relationship,” said Cameron Jackson, director of the Florida State University School of Theatre. That’s why, for the past five years, members of the school’s management team have gone to the FSU Reservation, a lakeside facility near the university’s Tallahassee campus that features canoeing, kayaking, picnicking, swimming and many other activities. The managers want to improve communications, and the team-building activities at FSU Challenge and other programs help deepen the relationships between coworkers.

These programs — often held outdoors on specially designed courses — attempt to change how groups of people think about communication, leadership and trust. Although team-building courses are known for their dramatic high-wire acts of trust, that’s just part of the story. Group problem-solving exercises can take place comfortably on the ground but can be just as challenging.

“The low elements (of the ground course) are for team building, trust and communication, and the high elements are more for self-esteem and self-confidence,” said Jack Sanborn, a former Marine Corps flight instructor who manages Adventures Unlimited, a 100-acre outdoor reservation north of Pensacola in the woods of Milton.

Ropes courses help people think outside the box. Or, in the case of corporate groups, the office cubicle.

“What you’re doing is getting people outside their comfort zone,” Sanborn said. “A lot of people think when they get outside their comfort zone they’ll freeze up and can’t do it.”

Overcoming personal fears and making people feel empowered: That’s what the high ropes are about. A high-ropes course may have you climb a tall ladder, or ride a zip line 30 feet in the air through a forest canopy.

“It’s like a mother bird pushing you out of the nest. You have to take that leap of faith,” Sanborn said. “When people feel empowered, they feel they can rise to any challenge. They feel like Superman. They say, ‘Hey, I did this, I climbed to the top of that pole.’”

Blake Dowling, director of sales and marketing at Aegis Business Technologies in Tallahassee, said that his company has undertaken team-building programs every year for the past 10 years. He said they are invaluable tools for businesses with 10 or more employees and staff, and that if your company isn’t doing some kind of challenge course, it’s missing out.

“Sure, you can have a party or a lunch to bring the company together outside the office, but if you engage in challenges together and have every part involved and working together, there is nothing like it,” Dowling said. “We’ve been a stronger company because of our team-building activities.”

Getting to Know You

The classical philosopher Plato said, “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” And that’s the point of team-building exercises.

Jordan Merrick, director of FSU Challenge in Tallahassee, likes Plato’s quote so much that he put it on the back of his business card. FSU Challenge is a part of the university’s campus recreation program and is located at the FSU Reservation on Lake Bradford. Merrick is in charge of a staff of facilitators who conduct outdoor field exercises in group dynamics. His job is to get grownups to play games — but with a purpose.

“Our activities are not to point out obstacles, necessarily,” Merrick said. “The activities we do just provide an opportunity for natural behaviors to come out. That’s the idea.”

In Merrick’s experience, team-building clients are just learning about themselves — specifically, how they can interact better with their coworkers. It’s about learning the different ways in which people express ideas. These differences can often lead to misinterpretation and even friction which, needless to say, hinders productivity.

“If you and I have different styles of communications and never know that, we will have a difficult time communicating,” he said. “But if I begin to understand what your version and your style of communication is and you start to understand what mine is, then I can say that when you say something and if I’m offended by it, it’s really not meant that way. It’s just your style of communicating.”

It’s only natural that other facilitators in the team-building game tend to focus on communication as one component of the overall learning experience. Understanding different perspectives is all a part of building an effective work force, according to Joan Helms of JAH & Associates in Tallahassee. Helms is a facilitator who has consulted with government, nonprofit and private-sector organizations for 20 years.feature-helms

“In building those relationships, it takes time to learn about the other person,” she said, noting that different personalities have to be approached in the appropriate manner. For example, the social gadfly may be open to a more relaxed “Hey, how’s it going?” approach, while a task-oriented co-worker may want you to get right to the point.

“It’s all about adapting the style of communication,” Helms said. “Some people are visual, so you’d present a project on a piece of paper as well (as offering discussion). Communication is about learning how people view the world and how they see things, and how to adapt so we are communicating effectively.”

She admits that the hard part of communicating is being willing to be quiet and just listen to the other viewpoint. Many people will wait to speak, instead of listening.

“It’s about finding balance and giving the other person the opportunity,” Helms said.

This need to be understood is a typical human trait, Merrick said. However, different levels of the same need can cause conflict, he added.

“Individuals all have the same needs … but individual backgrounds and personalities are so different that it can’t be said that everybody has the same amount of any of those needs,” Merrick said. “I may have a greater need for a sense of belonging than somebody else in my group. So learning about what those differences are and how we can get everybody on the same page, that’s more of what we’re trying to do rather than point out obstacles.”

Getting Ready to Play

Drawing out these insights into human behavior is the job of facilitators throughout Northwest Florida. But clients don’t just show up at a team-building course. They are usually assessed in advance regarding their goals and what they hope to accomplish with the time and budget constraints they have to work with.

“You must spend time speaking with the client to determine what it is they really want and need,” said Marilyn MacCollum of DESTINation Management LLC of Destin. “Oftentimes they don’t have the budget or the time to do experiential team building, so they decide to do a fun recreational activity such as Beach Olympics or sand building.”

MacCollum’s organization provides clients with a choice of three basic types of team building: recreational, experiential and corporate social responsibility. Recreational events provide a fun activity where coworkers get to know each other in a different environment. Experiential events are designed to meet the objectives of a particular need within a company. And corporate responsibility involves performing charitable “giving back” work.

Her company’s clients are usually corporations and sometimes associations, nonprofits and reunion groups. She said team-building programs can be expensive because of the planning and logistics, but compared to the cost of some other activities it’s more than worth it.

“If you compare it to the cost of a round of golf per person, then they realize that this is much better,” she said.

At FSU, Merrick said potential clients of FSU Challenge are asked to fill out a simple online questionnaire that outlines their goals and some logistics. One page is a group questionnaire that asks the potential client to describe the group that will be coming to the event, as well as what change the client would like to see take place in the group’s dynamic.

“What are your goals, why are you bringing your group to us, what is it you want us to work on during our time together?” he said, describing the intent of the questionnaire. Once those questions are answered, Merrick selects the right facilitator for that group.

Helms, meanwhile, said she likes to get a full picture of the team’s “current reality” before they set off on the experience.

“What I want to do is interview them and find out what’s going on and why they think they need team building, and do an assessment on the team and get a snapshot of their current reality,” she said.

Helms likes to take a holistic approach to analyzing a client’s needs.

“I try to look at the organization as a whole,” she said. “So many things influence how effective a team is. So rather than approach it like a finger in the dike, I try to figure out what the whole thing is.”

Just as the preliminary questions are important for determining a group’s goals, so too is the need for debriefing — preferably by the facilitator in charge. This counselor’s job is to work the group through the challenge and then get the group members to open up about what they learned.

“In my opinion, for an experiential team-building exercise to be beneficial, the group should come back together to discuss what they experienced, what they saw, what they learned,” MacCollum said. “This sharing is moderated by the trained facilitators to make sure that the client’s objectives were met.”

The facilitator is the key to the whole experience, Jack Sanborn said.

“The facilitator is trained to make the group think outside the box, and to help the group communicate with each other,” he said.

The Roles People Play

There are stereotypes in every office: the gadfly, the gossip, the recluse, the peacemaker, the coffee maker, the natural leader, the beta male. There are those who talk all the time, those who have to be the first to talk, and those who analyze all the ideas to help the group come to a decision. Recognizing and analyzing these roles can lead to better teamwork, said Kristin Watkins, chief learning officer for the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. Watkins oversees training for front-line driver-license examiners and call-center personnel, but she is also in charge of Management Fellows, a training program for potential managers and supervisors within the department. The ropes course at the FSU Reservation is part and parcel to that training.

Watkins said the team-building experience brings attention to those many roles and how well, or badly, they interact.feature-watkins

“I think talking through that really helps them to form a more cohesive team, and it helps those people who need to not be the first one to talk all the time, or who need to be the ones to speak up more,” she said. “It really allows some of those discussions to happen where it’s OK to talk about what roles you play and what roles you will all need to play in order to be successful.”

Jackson, of the FSU School of Theatre, compared these discussions to a coach studying and critiquing an athlete’s performance.

“Just like the very best athletes can’t see their own swing, they need that coach to tell them what that swing looks like,” he said. “The same is true whether it’s an individual or group. This is an opportunity to find out what the group swing is from (each perspective) in order to improve their overall performance.”

An Invaluable Tool

Team-building, the grownup version of playing around on the monkey bars, has proven to be a big hit in the corporate world. It’s a thinking person’s game, Jackson said.

“The idea is that through challenges that don’t necessarily have easy or rehearsed or obvious answers, you forge new pathways of working together,” he said. “You’ve heard the phrase ‘Necessity is the mother of invention.’ Well, that’s what the challenge of the ropes course is. You have to work as a team and examine how effectively you are working as a team.”

Working effectively is the goal of any office, MacCollum said, while warning that sometimes the problem isn’t with the employees but the leader.

“In that case, team building is not the answer,” she cautioned.

What’s really so great about it is how simple and elegant the concept of team building is, according to Sanborn.

“I think the thing people learn the most is how basic it is,” he said. “‘This isn’t rocket science. This is what I should have learned in kindergarten.’

“I think they learn it’s really a process that is very simple but it works in all situations, whether it’s the home environment, church or workplace,” Sanborn said. “It’s about respect — listening to other people because you care about them and they care about you.”

Office managers and supervisors also learn lessons in listening better and forming bonds of trust with their employees.

“They learn to listen to their employees, and they learn to trust their employees, and they learn that their way isn’t the only way,” Sanborn said. “They learn too that their interaction with their superiors can be improved, too.”

Dowling, of Tallahassee’s Aegis Business Technologies, said the programs teach participants how to walk in someone else’s shoes, and that everyone’s job is equally important.

“We all have the same common goal of making customers happy and making a profit,” he said. “We have 16 employees, and it’s a great chance for a cross-departmental interaction. The service and admin departments may not spend a lot of time together, but it gets them involved in group activities, and it really helps with overall morale.”

However, probably one of the biggest challenges is just getting the office family to come to the ropes course. Employees who are generally not accustomed to being outdoors and climbing obstacles get a little skittish when the boss says they’re going to go on a “ropes course.”

“Nobody ever wants to go,” said Kristin Watkins of the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

Employees may be reluctant and skeptical at first, but Watkins said the activities can have a profound effect on people. Several groups have gone through the program and reported good things about it, and people are less hesitant.

“The first two groups we took out didn’t want to go,” she said. “They make you sign the liability waiver before you go, and so people are like, ‘What are we doing? This is ridiculous. Why would we do this?’ But until you do it, you can’t really know what you’re going to get out of it. When we get them out there, and once they’re there, everyone is glad they went.”

Sanborn eases his clients’ minds by making the high-ropes challenges optional, and belittling comments are discouraged.

“Everything is challenge by choice,” he said. “If a person says, ‘I don’t want to do that,’ there’s no peer pressure, no dark humor, you won’t make fun of people. Everybody needs to feel safe, emotionally and physically.”

The participants’ outlook on life in general changes with the experience, Sanborn said.

“It’s interesting seeing what happens, because it changes people’s lives,” he said. “When they get to the high-course element, it might be as simple as climbing up a ladder, walking across a telephone pole hanging onto another cable, but that’s huge for some people. We’ve seen people’s lives change on the high course.”

Helium Rods and the Telephone-Pole Shuffle

Team members really get frustrated when something so simple challenges their assumptions, Watkins said. Her most memorable exercise at FSU Challenge was not performing some high-wire act, but trying to lay a small pole (the “helium rod”) on the ground. Teammates line up on either side of the rod and “hold” it by resting it on top of their index fingers. Grabbing it is not permitted. The goal is for everyone to lay the pole flat on the ground at the same time. It may sound easy, but the results are surprising.

“We had one group that probably spent over an hour trying to lay that thing down on the ground, and some really fascinating observations came out of their interactions doing that,” she said. “People made assumptions about other people, and people got frustrated with other people. Some people expressed that frustration, and some held it inside. The beauty of it is it seems so simple. Everyone thinks, ‘It’s no big deal, we can do this easily.’ But when they do it, it doesn’t happen like they think it’s going to happen.”

The problem is you can’t really tell who is not in sync with everybody else, and so that creates some of the frustration too, Watkins said.

“You don’t know who to be mad at; the thing just keeps floating up in the air,” she said.

At Milton’s Adventures Unlimited, Jack Sanborn said his Telephone Pole Shuffle challenges participants to think outside the box by finding alternate ways of communicating. The goal of this exercise is for 12 people to line up on a telephone pole on the ground and without touching the ground or talking, arrange themselves either alphabetically or by birth date.

“To do that, you think outside the box. You come up with a system of communication like hand signals,” he said. “Creativity lies within, and each has his own level of creativity — and the value of the individual is that even though they might be overweight, they may prove to be the smartest one in the group.”

Cameron Jackson said that one of the more challenging exercises his theater managers faced at FSU Challenge was a tangle of knotted ropes. But it was something that didn’t involve climbing.

“We gathered around it, and each had a different point of view, and we had to see how the ropes were interconnected,” he said. “We couldn’t touch them or pick them up. We could only look at them and talk. It’s pretty reminiscent of a lot of challenges that face any group or team. You have a different perspective, so how do you make sense of the problem and arrive at a conclusion?”

The team-building experience works on that communication, Jackson said.

“There were events where half of us were blind and the other half couldn’t speak, but there had to be clear communication,” he said. “You needed each other to make the whole action work. You’re practicing something very useful and practical, just in a different way.”


Uncommon Coordination

It’s a beautiful, windy September day at Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine, and up on the ancient Spanish fort’s gun deck, a group of special visitors is training for war.

Ladies and gentlemen, the National Park Service Cannon School for 18th-century artillery is in session.

The fort’s Historic Weapons Program is one of the best of its kind in the southeastern United States, and it relies mostly on volunteers to carry it out. To become a volunteer in this program, one must be certified by successfully completing the training provided in the cannon school.

Twice a year (spring and fall), many ordinary people sign up for the popular “class.” The weekend-long course is one part classroom lecture and one part team-building exercise. But this is no simple set of mind games, puzzles or obstacles. In this team-building program, there is no room for error.

Each crew of volunteer gunners deals with a powerful, muzzle-loading cannon that weighs as much as a small car. There is the potential for industrial-level burns and crush injuries. Mistakes during a demonstration can lead to immediate — and catastrophic — consequences. Communication, consistency, trust, teamwork and training are vital to the safety of the crews working the guns.

And did I mention that the drill commands are all in Spanish?

Safety is a team effort. Everybody must be on the same page — literally. Each gun takes a crew of five: four gunners and one master gunner, who is usually a seasoned volunteer or ranger. Getting the crew members to work together in a perfectly coordinated ballet of movement requires classic team-building values taught on conventional challenge courses. There must be commitment, trust and constant communication (both verbal and nonverbal). And if you see something that’s not quite right, you can’t be afraid to speak up and take action.

Drills last all day and are followed by certification firings in the afternoon. If you listen well, pay attention to your instructors and watch out for your teammates, the payoff — in terms of safety, satisfaction and pride — is huge. There’s a special kind of thrill when the big iron sings, and the timeless skills and teamwork necessary for an 18th-century job can carry over into one’s 21st-century job, too.

— Jason Dehart