Barrett View #1

Team Building: In the words of the inimitable Lord Alan Sugar "This is not a game".

Recently (in 2011), I have been watching the TV programs "UK Apprentice" and "Dragons Den UK".

The Apprentice UK program was remarkable for its insights into what a really successful CEO makes of the mostly (not all) ghastly array of corporate "wannabees" who put their various talents into the firing line week after week. The final prize being a plum job in Amstrad Corp, being mentored by its CEO, Alan Sugar.

Dragons' Den is perhaps even more instructive. Five multi-millionaire entrepreneurs listen to hopeful applicants, each of whom have 5 minutes to sell their idea, product, or concept to the entrepreneurs who can independently decide to invest (or not) in the applicants. Within perhaps 10-15 minutes at most, up to £½ million can be offered an applicant for a % stake in their company. This is the entrepreneurs' own money, and it's for real. The questions asked and the approach taken to making significant decisions asks big questions of those organizational consultants who sell team-building products and services.

It's addictive viewing because unlike most reality TV drivel, these programs provide insights into the minds, behavior, and decision-making of a particular kind of successful entrepreneur and leader. It also exposes the arrogance, pointless aggression, and rank stupidity of most of those corporate “wannabees”.

The first 20 seconds of Alan Sugar's "position" is refreshing to say the least if you are, like me, someone who has argued that those attributes he destroys in seconds are precisely those required by many senior executives to "get along and get ahead" in their corporate settings.

Likewise the Dragon's Den entrepreneurs. Look at this "Corporate Team Building exercise" investment opportunity, incredible until you realize this is for real … Dragons' Den Team-Building Drumming This group of people actually had contracts from Citigroup and Unilever to deliver this "exercise" to their teams. Note also this is a carefully sanitized version of the program, where all negative comments have been removed by the posters of this Youtube video, BassToneSlap themselves!

I too have had to suffer this brand of "team-building" torture, while at a certain NZ corporate. The entire leadership team and senior technical staff had to spend a day pretending to be animals, juggling balls, finding "inner meaning", separating into teams pretending to do some facile task, followed up with the usual personality-type tomfoolery while we all explored our "types" and discussed how we could interact better amongst ourselves (as though we hadn't already been doing this for a year or more).

The only saving grace is that we were not asked to go into the middle of the bush, or halfway up a mountain armed with only a tin-opener, piece of string and a paper clip, and asked to figure out how to return to base camp 50 km away!

There will be those reading this who actually think this kind of "exercise" is worthwhile, even if only as a motivational intervention. They obviously have money to waste and a CEO who isn't fully engaged in what's actually happening in her/his organization. Look again at Alan Sugar in flow; look at the "Dragons" asking questions and making decisions. That's what team leaders need to be aiming for in how they manage teams - good judgment, clear decision-making, some empathy, but also "no-nonsense-tolerated-here" leadership.

The point being, teams have a job to do. End of story. The team-leader is charged with fulfilling that job; the members each contribute what they can to ensure the team produces exactly that they were tasked with producing. Team members who refuse to work with or talk to others, let their ego walk into a room before them, think organizational-politics trumps "getting the job done", or otherwise play "mind-games" with members - face some simple choices: leave the organization, be sacked, or understand the quietly, sensitively, but nevertheless firmly imparted guidance: "you do it like this because it's your job". This puts extraordinary focus on the team leader as the critical fulcrum about which a team can succeed or fail, for if this person "plays games" themselves, the team and its productivity are lost, regardless of the calibre of its members.

I know there are some organizational psychologists/HR consultants out there who actually do a really good job with assisting teams to perform better. But, for those executives/managers who recommend sending their most valuable employees away for "leadership and team-building exercises" which do not involve the kinds of activities or intellectual challenge you wish them to engage in at work, it's "game over".

Sure, most employees will tell you that they "enjoyed" it, or "found it valuable", or find some other euphemism that gives the impression they are a "team player" (because in some organizations, the merest suggestion that you have not found "benefit" from the banal activity is an invitation to being thought of as "not sound" or "a trouble-maker" by senior HR)I.

Unfortunately, some employees may actually believe a week away at camp "Execs'R'Us" has actually been beneficial for them (apart from the usually relaxing R'n'R aspect!). These latter staff need a cold, hard, second look as potential leaders in any organization. "Development" is not a word I would be using here.

Look, I think sometimes it is very useful for a company to employ a consultant to help sort out a few problems which may be occurring within a team. But, that help should be of the expert-kind, where the goal is solely to get the team members and leader to understand a simple statement: "You have a job to do, do it".

It's not about learning how to "manage or co-operate" with corporate games, organizational politics, personal egos, or any of those distractions. It's about "getting the job done" .

Some people are gregarious, they find it easy to get along and work with others, some are quieter and more reserved. Some are more expert than others, some are actually quite unpleasant people, some very likeable. When they all have to sit together, interact, and achieve a goal as a team, it's no good asking them "let's all be friends". It's the team leader's job to get that team to focus on the job at hand, and produce. Those who cannot keep focus need to realize that their loss of "control" in that team environment will cost them their job, sooner rather than later. In most cases that knowledge is sufficient to ensure that they function properly within the team.

Unlike the complex reasons proffered by many "experts" on the matter, this is really what sets apart a high -performance team from the one which limps along like a lame animal. The high performance team just gets the job done.

And how do they manage this? They, with the guidance of their leader, quickly sort out the usual complex psychological flux that permeates any gathering of human beings who need to work together. What takes priority is the goal. Team members who let their own "issues" get in the way of that goal are taken to one side by the leader, reminded of their duty and responsibility and asked whether they wish to continue as a member of that team. It's done quickly, efficiently, and with empathy/sensitivity. But it gets done all the same.

Those who promote "entertainment" as "corporate team building exercises" should look again at the videos above and see how decision-makers really function; they might wish to reconsider offering a new kind of consultancy, one that actually helps their client teams see the wood for the trees in a business sense, and not quite literally as they are forced to find their way out of some local impenetrable forest.

And yes, ensuring that message "you are here to do a job, so do it" stays front and center in everyone's heads is an ongoing task. It can and should be fulfilled with sensitivity, politeness, and understanding, but with the ever-present unyielding message that regardless of side-issues, the team has to produce what it has been tasked with producing.

The point being is exactly as Alan Sugar puts it: "This is not a game". I only wish some HR and organizational consultants would take a "reality pill" and think again about what they offer clients who are looking for assistance.

While there are HR execs out there who will pay good money for interventions they think are for "team building", there will be the clutch of idiot-brained consultants offering something suitably branded as such. Don't believe me? Go look at the "drumming video again" … and wonder why few take HR seriously when important strategic decisions affecting an organization have to be made.

updated 7th September, 2016