Hanlon’s Law states that you should never attribute to malice that which can be explained by mere incompetence, but I’d tack on an addendum to say If you’ve left your employees wondering whether “ironic” or “dystopian” is the correct way to describe your corporate event, it may not have fulfilled it’s promise of “team building”.
Let me be honest here: I hate “team building”. Shock. Horror. I know. Who’da thunk a cynical introvert from an early age, who lacked any modicum of school spirit, hid in supply closets during recess so she could read some more of the encyclopedia, avoids any and all attempts at Class Reunions, and would rather eat ground glass than participate in a team sport would possibly be made uncomfortable by corporate rah-rah activities? Well, I am. And I will be the first to admit that many people don’t share my disdain for these outings. Just as I have no problem with public speaking or karaoke, which give many people the whirling fantods, I will allow that variety makes the world go ’round. However…
I’ll back up a little here and try not to type anything actionable while I give a little context. About a year ago a series of poor upper management decisions were put in motion, decisions that put a strain on our already-dysfunctional workplace. The chiefest among these were the acquisition of 3rd parties with no cleansed data and no requirements put on those third parties, the lion’s share of the work falling to my little corner of the department, and then the insultingly wrong decision to outsource my little corner of the department and fire most of us. Soon after those decisions were made, there was a rather drastic change in management. After having been in meetings with a sort of middley-upper manager, as well as a satisfyingly awkward conversation with the new Head of the Division, I am willing to take at face value their insistence that there’s no “chain of command” bullshit, that going forward acquisitions would be dealt with with more care. However, middle management has been middle managing in the same dysfunctional way.
The dysfunction hasn’t gone unnoticed by upper management, and they decided that the best way to deal with that would be an “away day” of brain-storming and team-building. We were given a tap card so that we could use public transit to get us to the off-site location at Hollywood and Vine, which happened to be about halfway between my apartment and work. Accordingly, I did not waste my gas driving to work and driving home, just made use of my keen public transit knowledge gained from the Dark Time when I didn’t own a car. I got there sweaty and feeling like I needed a do-over on my shower, as is customary for public transit. The first thing I noticed was that there were place cards on the various tables. Also, there was fairly loud music. Despite the fact that my manager and director were at my table, I spent most of the time waiting for the event to begin either scrolling through my phone or reading a book. Which was pretty much what everyone else at my table did. My manager joked that this was the first test of the team-building, which I didn’t doubt for a second.
By the time the event got started, I was ready to be lectured at. There was an activity (of course): we were divided into three groups and each table was given some puzzle pieces. An elaborate system was devised to slow down the creation of the puzzle, and we were timed. Naturally we were set up to fail – a puzzle piece was missing from each team, and the “game” devolved into full contact Aussie Rules Football as people from other groups tried to “steal” pieces or keep the pieces from being stolen. A few of us stepped back (all credit to the dude on my team whose first instinct was to draw a picture of the missing piece though – it’s a shame his creative impulse was mooted by the screeching howler monkeys and their thievery), unwilling to get involved in such a violent fray. When we were done, the leader of the object lesson told us all how we failed and spent the next 45 minutes or so explaining how we could all work more efficiently together. Which was nice. I’m not even being sarcastic here – it was a nice sentiment. The handouts she brought backed up her statements about co-operation vs. collaboration. I would love to implement all the steps it would take to engender a fully collaborative work environment. But here’s the thing – I am but a cog in a vast machine. Most of us in the chairs were not middle management. We don’t set the tone. Putting the onus of un-fucking a dysfunctional environment on the lowest folks on the totem pole (and then blaming them for not being team players when things inevitably go south) is pretty damn gormless. The game was dominated by a bunch of hyper-competitive pushy people because the division is dominated by them. On the other side of the table are the quieter, more cautious analytical types. Both types of employee are necessary, but only one type is rewarded. If the changes don’t come from the top, no amount of hands-on demonstrations or power point presentations are going to fix the corporate culture from below.
But that wasn’t the worst the day had to offer. After a light lunch, we were shuffled off to new assigned seats and treated to some amateur theatrics when a few people dressed like funeral directors burst into the room and gave us a new assignment. Through the medium of corny murder mystery dinner theatre, it was brought to our attention that someone had “kidnapped” our division head. Our assignment was to find “the boss” (responsible for the alleged abduction) and find out where our division head was being held. How were we going to do that? With a few phone apps, a camera, and some helpful confederates lurking around the block. Did I mention we were at Hollywood and Vine? I used to live in that neighborhood. It is not a great idea to go talking to random people on the street there. Also, it was about a million degrees and I had not brought sun-block.
Now if you were trying to punish me for some heinous misdeed, this would be a great template – make me interrogate strangers under the full hateful strength of the sun. We were given a password (“Elvis”) and sent on our way. Most of the awfulness of this endeavor is best left as an exercise to the reader. I will note that myself and one or two others on my team were exceptionally good at observation. I was the only one who could accurately ascertain which rando’s were part of the game (“… no, the hollywood star tour flyer guy is not one of the actors – he’s got dingy underwear coming out of his pants. No one is that method.”) and I did think to google the riddles they gave us as clues, so I wasn’t completely useless. Also, at one of the three bars we had to go into, my cynical mien (and the fact that I couldn’t fit in the corner of the dive bar to interrogate the actor within) offered me some entertainment, when a barfly straight out of central casting asked if I was part of this “work release or some kind of community service?” I shook my head and said “Almost; corporate team-building.” He nodded and told me he used to be in Sales, and they did this every year or so – the difference was that their performance during the team-building event directly affected their accounts. We bitched a bit more and he bought me a second cuba libre (the sympathtic person in charge of my team bought my first), which I sadly had to bolt as my team members had wrung the requisite information out of their quarry.
About halfway through the exercise we were given a packet informing us there might be a mole on the team, and we were to find the mole for x amount of points. If we guessed wrong, we would lose that many points. Now I looked around at my team and I could tell there was no mole. No one was trying mis-direct us (in fact, I probably wound up with the best team possible under the circumstances, as most of us were vaguely embarrassed to participate), no one was behaving suspiciously. My years of acting training somehow never made me a more than adequate actor, but I am super-awesome at seeing when someone’s acting, and no one on my team was doing that (OK, the supposed informants were, quite obviously)… but – I did identify a different team’s mole. And one of my team-mates identified yet another team’s mole. I told you we were good at observation. But that didn’t help us. At one point, two of my team-mates decided I MUST be the mole and demanded to search my purse. I rolled my eyes and made sure the pocket with all the maxi-pads in it was the first they got to. Even after the folder was turned in for the final scoring (they listed the other team’s moles. we got no points for that, which I feel was unfair) someone still asked me. I guess apathy is suspicious? (FTR, our team’s assigned mole was absent that day, so I was entirely vindicated.)
We didn’t do as poorly as I had thought – we were ranked about halfway in – but as they went through scoring system and attempted to explain how each task somehow related to work, I had to wonder if the sowing the seeds of suspicion and discord wasn’t really the point of the whole exercise. I mean, it sure seemed like it. And it was one more activity that reinforced the dysfunctions of the workplace – be extroverted, forget caution and safety, and be suspicious of your co-workers. Got it.
So the next time I’m required to do one of these things, I will give it a try, but if I had to do it again, I’d probably feign (or induce) gastro-intestinal distress after lunch and spend the afternoon catching up on the data analysis that makes up most of my work.