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Team-Building: In Defense of Ropes Courses
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Team-Building: In Defense of Ropes Courses - Executive Leadership Articles

Team-Building: In Defense of Ropes Courses

Executive Leadership Articles

Team-Building: In Defense of Ropes Courses

We have made it clear in multiple past articles that true team-building happens when people do meaningful work together. Yet gimmicky team-building retreats and ropes courses seem to be more popular than ever, a truth that seems to demand a deeper, second look. Unfortunately, formal research in the efficacy of ropes courses is woefully lacking, so we are left instead to take anecdotal evidence in giving them another fair shot. We took an informal survey of professionals we know, both in management and rank-and-file positions, who say they enjoy formal, structured team-building activities and believe they are effective.

Every respondent to our survey agrees with our firm belief that true team-building happens when people do meaningful work together. Yet most feel that this is a long-term kind of growth, and sometimes a team needs a little bit of an injection of esprit-de-corps to get it going. The contrivance of team-oriented goals gets people working together on something in a low-risk, low-stakes environment, a safe place to practice teamwork sometime before true teamwork needs to be depended upon. Yes, everyone knows that the tasks are artificial, but the artifice doesn’t change the fact that a sense of accomplishment can be attained by a mixed group of people who have reasons to complete a series of tasks, even if those reasons are as diverse as wanting to please the boss and truly caring about positive relationships among colleagues.

Some of our ropes-course believers suggest it’s not the course itself that accomplish the goal, but the structure. Left to their own devices, many employees will use a simple, unstructured outing only to socialize with those they’re already close to. Many will interpret the lack of structure to mean a lack of meaning or importance. Without some kind of directive from some kind of boss, employees slide into away-from-work mode, which can be a different mindset from the intended let’s-get-closer-through-friendly-interaction. Thus, Labor Day picnics have tug-o-war competitions, office Christmas parties mix up the departments for group gingerbread house contests, and team-building retreats have zip lines. It might not be the job everyone got hired to do, but it’s obviously still work because someone’s making them do it.

A few of our respondents say that even if nothing meaningful happens among coworkers in a ropes-course setting, the forced interaction can be revealing for managers who get a glimpse at everyone in one place. Certain employees often reveal themselves to have hidden skills and tendencies, the kinds of strengths that might not emerge within the frameworks of the jobs they were hired to do. This gives managers insight about who might be ready to make a leap horizontally to a new department or vertically to a promotion. In real-office settings, it can be tough to see someone outside his or her usual role, since our very knowledge of them exists because of that role. Removing people from their everyday settings offers new perspectives.

Supporters of team-building retreats are unanimous in their belief that such activities, whether they accomplish true team-building or not, are just a lot of fun, and group fun among coworkers can be a rare thing. If the activities or structure themselves do not develop teams, the fun of communing together in the great outdoors is what does the trick. For these believers (and there appear to be a great many of them), an all-day, off-site, team-building ropes course is not something one is forced to do—it’s something one gets to do, a rare day of fun on the company’s dime.

We are going to resist the temptation, then, to rain on anyone’s parade. While we deeply suspect that what ropes-course approaches to team-building really accomplish is the appearance of managers actually managing, we will swerve clear of that treatise in fairness to those who actually enjoy them. Whether they actually meet the goals everyone proclaims or not, if participants are having fun, what difference does it make whether their time is structured or unstructured? Perhaps this is where the real managing takes place, in measuring the pulse of your team and understanding how it will best spend company time pursuing better relationships among colleagues.


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Team-Building: In Defense of Ropes Courses - Executive Leadership Articles

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