Team Building by Torture? Not So Effective

Last Updated Apr 29, 2008 6:17 PM EDT

By now you've heard about the overzealous manager who used waterboarding as a motivational tool for an underperforming sales force. (Boss to team: "You saw how hard Chad fought for air right there. I want you to go back inside and fight that hard to make sales.")

Yep, he's being sued. But while his methods were extreme, he was probably just trying to do what most managers want to do: motivate, inspire, and build consensus. Problem is, terrifying your employees doesn't often lead to effective team building. Neither, necessarily, do over-the-top exercises like sticking your troops on a sinking ship or compelling them to play a cut-rate game of Survivor. In fact, those things can tend to engender conformity instead of solidarity.

Says Workforce.com blogger John Hollon in a recent post, "Team Building Gone Wrong": "Team-building exercises like these are more about getting people to follow along blindly... than they are in really getting people to work as a team," he writes. That kind of bovine "follow the herd" mentality, also known as groupthink, kills creativity and critical thought and can literally lead to disaster. In the waterboarding case, the victim's coworkers were so bought into the so-called training exercise -- or so intimidated by their boss -- that none of them thought to intervene. Kind of like Lord of the Flies in the workplace.

Sometimes, low-key pub crawls (with darts or pool) or a few rounds of Scattergories can do more to make your employees simpatico than a fancy-shmancy weekend corporate retreat. (While those forced getaways might not be as extreme as waterboarding, they can feel hellish anyway.) So do yourself and your employees a favor: Think twice before you select your next can't-miss team-building event. And please, don't try to torture them into submission.

  • CC Holland

    CC Holland is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and a number of national magazines. Online, she was a columnist for AnchorDesk.com and writes regularly for Law.com and BNET. On the other side of the journalism desk, she's been a managing editor for ZDNet, CNet, and KCBS-TV in Los Angeles, where she earned an APTRA Best News Web Site award.