Team Building Is Not for the Faint of Heart
I spent almost 40 years working for big corporations. The pay was great, but the work was high pressure and demanding. With thousands of employees to manage, department heads had to work closely with each other. This led to a ridiculous set of exercises named Team-Building.
In 1991 I had been promoted into an executive position just in time to attend a 3-day exercise in Warner Hot Springs, which was so far from civilization that the rustic hotel rooms had no televisions. I was so nervous about the event I felt nauseous. A born introvert, I was always intimidated by social situations surrounded by semi-strangers talking about sports. But this was serious. If I made an idiot of myself at this event, all the company big shots would forever remember my foolishness as their first impression of me.
Early the next morning, we met in a conference room. There were about 30 of us – 29 men and one woman. They all seemed to know each other, but looked at me like I was painted green. A team-building consultant led the first exercise with an introductory speech as we sat around one large table. He held a tennis ball in his hand.
“I am going to throw this ball at one of you. This person will then throw it to another person and then say something nice about that person. That person will then pick someone else to throw the ball to and say something nice about that person. And so on.”
You already know where this is heading, don’t you? The most popular guys were chosen first. Being a stranger, I was the second to the last person to receive the ball. I had to throw it to the last person and say something nice about him. This was a challenge. If he had had some virtue, he would have already been picked. I can’t remember what I said. Maybe I just passed out.
Next the consultant led us outside and grabbed a hula hoop. We all had to stand in a circle holding hands. I hate holding hands, especially with other men. The consultant broke the circle for a moment to insert the hula hoop around one person’s arm.
“Now I want you to work this hula hoop around this circle without letting go of your neighbors’ hands. Step through the hoop with your legs and loop it over your head to the next person.” This was just plain silly, but at least I survived it without losing my balance and falling over.
For the rest of the day we were broken into five teams which competed with each other. A vice president was put in charge of each team and they took turns choosing their team members. You all remember how humiliating this was in grammar school? Being the last one chosen? Well, it’s even worse when you’re in your 40’s.
The five teams played problem-solving games. For example, we were given a few planks of wood and some bricks and told to use them to cross a pond. It would be easy with enough wood and bricks, but there weren’t enough, so we had to be creative – to “think outside the box”. Almost all executives are “Type A” personalities: driven, self-confident, and aggressive. So each person thought he had the best plan and we had to debate which plan was best. Just like with a real business problem.
Another example was to climb a 12 foot fence, without a ladder. We had to lift a guy to the top and then he pulled another guy up, etc. I started enjoying the events. A handful of us had fought in Vietnam, giving us a common history to bond over. We remarked about how some of the games had parallels in combat operations.
Now part of a six-man team instead of the initial 30-person mob, I felt more confident. In each game I tossed out a suggestion or two about overcoming the obstacles. The other five guys listened and nodded, which encouraged me to continue to speak up.
On the second day, we got to climb trees. It was a day I will never forget. We took turns strapping ourselves into harnesses hooked to ropes and pulleys, and then climbing to a platform on the top of a 50 foot tree. The objective was to jump off the platform and grab a trapeze bar. Of course if I missed the bar, I’d be saved by the harness, assuming I did not swing face first into a tree. I loved it!
Some of the games were done in pairs and we were matched up by weight. As one of the smallest men, I was matched up with the lone woman, which was fine.
All day we were like kids again, swinging across water with ropes, diving into trampolines, playing tug of war, and racing across tree limbs. The grand finale was to walk across a 4 inch beam between two trees, high in the air, with a harness, of course. The consultant asked for volunteers to try it blindfolded. I shouted out “I’ll do it!” and the next thing I knew I was a circus performer. I made it all the way across with no problem, to the cheers of the group.
That evening over drinks we all told stories of our victories, and I finally felt like I belonged.
DON WESTENHAVER served with the Marines in Vietnam as a radioman and interpreter. His fascination with different cultures grew with many visits to Asia, Europe, Latin America, and Africa as a finance executive. These experiences inspired his first two novels, The Whiplash Hypothesis and The Red Turtle Project. Don’s third and fourth novels, Nero’s Concert and Alexander’s Lighthouse, spring from his life-long interest in ancient Rome, backed up by intense research and many travels.
Don and his wife assist with three different charities, play golf, read novels, and love to travel. They are blessed with two daughters and two grandchildren. Please visit Don’s website.
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SONIA MARSH SAYS: Your story brought back memories of elementary school when I was not selected by my classmates to participate in an event. As an adult, I started thinking how sad it is that we no longer play games, “Swinging across water with ropes, diving into trampolines, playing tug of war, and racing across tree limbs.”
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