VITAL SIGNS: Safe and happy bonding

VITAL SIGNS: Safe and happy bonding - My firm went on one of those bonding team-building exercises a few years ago. We proved to be the worst firm ever, according to the rugged ladies who ran the thing. They were clearly mystified at how unco-operative, u

by PETER YORK, in his persona as Peter Wallis, is managing directorof consultants SRU, e-mail:
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

My firm went on one of those bonding team-building exercises a few years ago. We proved to be the worst firm ever, according to the rugged ladies who ran the thing. They were clearly mystified at how unco-operative, un-teamy, uncompetitive and altogether uninterested we seemed to be. We didn't want to form human chains, we didn't want to walk five miles of country road to pick up a clue, and we didn't want to stay up late for anything except drinking.

The reality of a small, informal working 'sofa-culture' like ours was that we knew each other well already, and, let's be honest, we were rather snobbish about it, we thought it was naff and American.

Bonding weekends have historically had a distinctly Boys' Own background and we absolutely weren't - and aren't - a boys-only culture. The Mark 1 bonding games - those paintball guns - were often devised by ex-Army and sports types, who think their way into corporate life is paved with martial and sporting metaphors. We simply didn't fit the mould.

But this year we had Music Therapy and that was lovely. Bang African drums, learn choral bit parts to fantastically PC songs ('I will lift my brother up, he is not heavy ...'). We rehearsed on the Friday and performed for families on Saturday. It was utterly painless, broadly non-competitive, definitely unmilitaristic and modestly bonding. Nothing horrible was required and nothing unrealistic expected. And as a result people have felt rather warm and wet ever since.

There's a lot of it around. Sooner or later, stand-offish, shy or snobby, you'll find yourself at one of these things. If you're king of your company, you may go as champion of it or just as a notional team member.

If you are champion of the event, you can sometimes get away with a token appearance at the beginning and end, saying this is a time for ourselves, time to open up to a different kind of experience and to think about the big issues. Then you absent yourself, because your time is so obviously more precious - and the team is left thinking you're a superannuated old sordid who wouldn't know teamwork if it hit you round the face. At a stroke, you've reduced the credibility of the whole event, but you've got out of the grim bits.

But, as a team member, what's in it for you? As ever, you want the attention of the great. Off-site events let you get near people who matter. They're a chance to display those skills that don't get a look-in at work. And, of course, they're an opportunity to understand the secret hearts of your colleagues so you can manipulate them more effectively. And you just might learn a new skill or reach some kind of epiphany.

But these things are risky. There's the threat of real pain and damage. Remember those insurance men who were persuaded to walk on hot coals under the influence of collective fervour? Some were rather nastily burnt. And remember that 55-year-old from Scotland who died during team pot-holing? Events that could include serious climbing, abseiling, bungee jumping and canoeing may not be for you.

And some of the lesser exercises may sound equally terrifying because you know you're not that kind of person and you'll be shown up, embarrassed to no purpose, because the skills they're testing are about as relevant to your job as synchronised swimming.

And there's another risk: getting to know people too well; people who can't possibly do you any good but will think they've formed everlasting bonds. If the original exercises were very Outward Bound and war games-ish, there's a painful trend towards New Age-ery and Big Brother-ness. It could be a competition whose rules you don't understand and one that doesn't play to your strengths.

Do your homework. Get the organisers' brochure, get into their thinking. Find people who've experienced that package. And check out who the senior champion is, whether he'll be there all through and who the rest of the cast list are.

You've got some hard decisions to take. Do you show sick and get off it somehow; get pro-active and work out how to hijack the event to your ends; or go with the flow, because you think it will suit you?

Of course, it could be a lot of deeply un-British pain and embarrassment, but it just might be one of those Shining Path moments that defines the future and the session heat-seals together the people who'll run the show for the next 10 years. Would you want to miss that?

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