ABSEILING WITH A**EHOLES – a cautionary ‘team building’ tale


While they have their place, seems that sometimes, a game of paintball, a few rounds of golf or drinks on a Friday after work, just aren’t enough on their own to ‘cure what ails’ a group of people that just don’t seem to be operating as a high performing team.

Some years ago, when I was a bit younger and a lot more naïve, I made the move into my first corporate job, as a vehicle for moving from Social Work into the so-called real world.

And what a ride that was.

Being a bright, shiny, and at times no doubt annoyingly enthusiastic rookie in the world of sales, I had a lot to learn. In particular, I had trouble understanding the relentlessly cynical, overtly negative, seasoned veterans I now worked with, who muttered things to me like, ‘You’ll learn … You’ll get over yourself soon …Bloody newbie…you’ll see …’.

Baffled but undaunted, along with being blissfully ignorant of what wasn’t possible, off I drove in the company Camry and into the wide world of sales, a three-inch-thick computer printout of client details (the clients none of the veterans wanted) by my side, and the mandatory audio tapes of American sales gurus to keep me pepped up along the way.

To say I didn’t know what I was doing was an understatement.

Yet despite that, and much to the enormous frustration of the naysayers, I was so darned enthusiastic and excited to be offered what I saw as a great opportunity, that I practically brought in business out of sheer force of personality.

The clients loved me and loved what I was doing to help their businesses (I even resuscitated a few who were ‘gasping their last’), I won sales awards left, right and centre, saw monthly bonuses drop in with my salary, and put the teeth grinding in the weekly sales meetings down to a cluster of overbites.

Seeing the state of affairs (read ugly competitiveness) developing, our erstwhile State Manager, in a bid to get the team ‘collaborating’, decided that a trip to the Blue Mountains west of Sydney was in order (as, clearly, was a lengthy date with the golf course).

Casting about for something meaningful to gel the team, the services of an outdoor activity company were employed. These shiny, enthusiastic energizer bunnies were adamant that hanging off cliffs, several hundred metres above the ground, was absolutely the solution to all our ills.

To complete the picture, out of the eleven of us, three were serious candidates for a heart attack, another two were paralytic with fear of heights, several had hangovers from the mandatory first-night-of-a-conference piss up, and I was the only women – plus, I loved abseiling.

Suffice to say, dangling from a rope hundreds of metres above the ground, even for me, was somewhat daunting when I looked up at the glassy-eyed stare of the biggest naysayer holding the rope at the top of the cliff. At the bottom of the cliff one of my other non-fans had insisted on taking the other rope, (you know, the rope that steadies you to guide to down to safety), both clearly determined to give me a bit of a ‘hurry up’.

Now I know things have come a long way since then, and there are indeed some fantastic outdoor team building activities and ventures, which can have profound, positive, and lasting impacts on a team.

But, on its own, shooting paint at each, mini-golfing, or building a raft out hairpins and Blutac doesn’t seem, in the experience of the multitude of people I talk to, have had anything approaching a lasting impact on a deeply dysfunctional team. And unfortunately, at their worst, often end up leading to even more angst and even lower morale.

So, here’s my top 8 tips for a thriving team.

And no, I am definitely not from the fun police. I simply recommend, if what you’re after is a bigger, longer lasting impact on the team and your culture, that you add one or two of these in with the paintball or brewery tour:

  1. Recruit for individual strengths, aligned value and for what I call the untrainables. Anyone really connected to your company core purpose and values will make it their business to learn about products and procedures
  2. Do some team sessions around team purpose and around vision-boarding to help people achieve their own goals as well as the company’s
  3. Run get-to-know-and-appreciate-each-other team sessions with someone qualified, using the Strengths Profile, DiSC or the Myers Briggs Type Indicator
  4. Listen, I mean reeeeeaaaalllly listen and get to know people one-on-one and find out what drives them. The gift of your attention one of the most powerful thing you can offer someone, and will build trust
  5. Build trust individually and with the team as a whole, and keep building it. The previous two tips can help with the trust building
  6. Tell the team stories to demonstrate who you are, what your values are and how things work around here. Include stories about mistakes you’ve made and what you learned from them. Vulnerability builds trust
  7. Get the team to agree on a set of guidelines on how you’ll all behave in meetings so everyone feels safe to speak up, even on highly contentious issues. This isn’t what I call ‘meetings 101’ but is about things like no raised voices, no swearing, no judgement, one person to speak at a time, etc. You know, basic good manners.
  8. And finally, treat people as they each deserve to be treated. Favouritism my friends is a recipe for disaster…

- Penny Nesbitt