Risking Your Life For Corporate Camaraderie

Imagine being submerged inside a downed aircraft in icy water, knowing that to reach air and safety you have to work with fellow passengers. Of course, you understand this is only a training exercise, aimed at honing your capacity for trust, collaboration, and team building. Here’s the question: Will defying death succeed better than the rope courses, scavenger hunts, tug of wars and other standbys of traditional corporate team building?

The Groton, Conn.-based company Survival Systems USA is betting that undergoing realistic disaster training is the new trend in helping corporations enhance teamwork, improve leadership and build skills needed for 21st century workplaces. The company is adapting its aquatic survival training into a program for companies seeking to push the envelope in employee team building.

The Survival System training, which involves a mock plane or helicopter crash in nasty conditions, is but the latest in moves toward intensive team-building exercises that go far beyond the classic “trust fall.” Exercises may range from rock climbing, rappelling, wilderness camping and sailing to sophisticated “geo hunts” in which teams use GPS to follow clues.

Many executives believe that such intensive activities improve morale and increase teamwork (and hence, productivity); they’ve noticed that people who go through such programs bring back a more positive attitude and greater ability to work as a team. However, some team building exercises backfire, leaving employees bewildered, embarrassed and even demoralized.

A variety of factors may be pushing companies to engage in team building activities. One is that MBA programs around the country are using similar exercises as teaching tools for graduate students. At MIT Sloan, for example, new students spend a full day together at the Warren Conference Center building a boat and getting their team to cross an area of water. (If it fails, you’re going to get very wet!) At the Mays Business School at Texas A&M University, MBA students undergo a mock training in which they have to deal with the aftermath of a tornado. The goal is to provide training in crisis leadership as well as team building. If MBA students bring away positive experiences from these kinds of exercises, they are more likely to use them as management tools when they enter the workforce.

Another force propelling the drive for intensive team building may be related to millennials who have differing expectations for the workplace including an intense interest in the company culture and a desire for a sense of engagement. Thus, extreme training can be a recruitment tool.

To be sure, the announcement that your company will undergo a corporate team building exercise often elicits the groan, “Oh, not that again.” Still, smartly organized activities, keyed to real workplace issues, can help to build engagement, improve trust and collaboration and allow employees to be creative. Extreme team building does put you in situations where you have to rely on others to succeed and thus does help to build trust. If you trust your colleagues, you’re much more comfortable stating an opinion. Still, companies may be able to increase trust or encourage creativity without, for example, putting employees into large plastic balls and challenging them to roll downhill.

When considering hosting team-building exercises, companies have to determine just what they want to accomplish. Is it to improve morale? Increase collaboration? Consider: Is an exercise in which you pit one team against another going to accomplish your goal of camaraderie or do you want an exercise that focuses on collaboration? Executives should also select activities that are clearly linked to what people do on a daily basis. Planners have to be aware of employees with physical disabilities in choosing a program, so they can be included as well.

We are seeing a growing number of professional businesses that design and offer team-building events. If you don’t have an internal person to organize exercises, seek out and consult with the experts in these companies. I’m also a big fan of being transparent and upfront about why a company is asking its employees to go through an exercise.

Here’s another key point: What are the next steps after the exercise is over? It is dangerous to think that you can create a terrific team culture through just one particular program. It’s an ongoing process. You do have to be careful with team building – it may not accomplish everything that you might hope it will.

Another trend in corporate team building may help both company and community. Some companies are creating opportunities for employees to work for a period of time on a humanitarian project in a poor or underserved area. Such projects can build workplace skills as well as provide a service to those in need. An employee is likely to be much more positive about a company that supports that kind of project.

Extreme team building may represent the next evolution in corporate management, but it may not be right for every company. Sometimes a company softball game will be just as effective.

Neal Hartman is a Senior Lecturer in Managerial Communication at the MIT Sloan School of Management.