Team-building turns team players into alienated critics

Team-building may have driven this author out of corporate life into consultant work. He tells you why in this essay.

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The leaders of Allergan’s Human Resources department—about a dozen of us—spent a weekend in the early 1990s at a retreat in the mountains somewhere not far from corporate headquarters in Irvine, California. The retreat was designed to host a “ropes course,” an experience that’s supposed to strengthen a team.

These courses—also called a “challenge course”—engage participants in outdoor activities involving cables, ropes, and obstacles, along with “low” activities (those that take place on the ground) such as figuring out how to ford a river. It’s designed to (as one organization puts it) “develop confidence, trust, support, communication, cooperation and leadership skills.”

I remember sitting back-to-back with the vice president of the Compensation department, arms locked, and being told we needed to figure out how to stand up without unlocking our arms. I have other vague memories of the weekend, including the heartfelt celebration when it was over. By God, we believed we had bonded as a team.

Two weeks later, we were locked in a room for seven hours working to cut the HR budget by some ridiculous amount. All that “team-building” we’d gone through in the mountains had absolutely no bearing on our real-world reality.

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