I enjoy working in a team with intelligent and motivated people where communication is clear and there is respect between the members of the team. But I think I may have mentioned before on this blog that, in some respects, I’m not a team player (at least insofar as the concept is conceived of by HR departments). I hate work retreats. My attitude has always been: I spend all week with these people, and while I like most of ’em well enough, I can’t wait to spend the weekend with my family. But what I really hate are “team building” exercises.
This dislike has gone back many years, but I think it was exacerbated by a particular event. Once, longer away now than I care to remember, I was a little articled clerk, full of enthusiasm and naivety. On our first or second week, our group of articled clerks was sent on some kind of “leadership” or “team building” exercise. I don’t know what exactly the point of the exercise was, but the end result was appalling. By the end of the week, we had gone from being a friendly bunch to a group with massive schisms, full of suspicion and dislike. It certainly didn’t build a “team” mentality; in fact the very opposite. Luckily, I was a bit older, and I’d already been working full-time for over a year before then, so I didn’t take the whole thing very seriously. I have always just wanted to do my job well and go home.
One can get help from some exercises – for example, I found it helpful to do the Meyers-Briggs test, which disclosed that I was an extrovert – and almost everyone else in my family was an introvert. This helped me understand why everyone had been saying, “Why do you talk so much all the time?” since I was knee-high to a grasshopper. I feel the need to talk to work stuff out, whereas almost everyone else in my family feels the need to go away and mull over things to work stuff out. I’ve even married an introvert. Fortunately, my daughter is an extrovert from what I can see so far, so I have a fellow extrovert with whom I can talk until the cows come home. At the moment the main things she says to me are “Cat! Meow! Jump!” (her new game is pretending to be a cat, and I have made her a “tail” out of an old stocking and some newspaper). But I’m sure we’ll have more to talk about soon.
Team building exercises worry me where they are supposed to help you resolve “issues” with colleagues. I’m happy to talk with friends whom I trust about my personal problems and issues, but work colleagues? If I ever raised problems I had with a colleague, I’d prefer to keep that very, very private, strictly professional, and definitely one-on-one. I think it can be very confronting to talk about personal issues in a group of colleagues. I had a friend who did some kind of weird life skills course or something like that. He described to me how participants in a group exercise were talking about occasions where they had been physically and sexually abused, and crying. He said that he thought it was very positive and cathartic for them to talk about this in a group situation. On the contrary, the very idea appalled me. I think that for some people it can be a profoundly negative experience, and indeed, if not well handled, it can exacerbate any latent mental problems. A psychologist friend of mine once said, “It’s easy to take people’s heads apart and find out what’s bugging them, it’s far more difficult to put their heads back together. If you’re not careful and clever, you might unleash some stuff and be unable to resolve it and fix it.” You have to be so careful.
I couldn’t help thinking of all of this when I read a recent post by Marcellous, entitled A sad case. The case, MacKinnon v Bluescope Steel Limited  NSWSC 774 is indeed very sad. To quote from Marcellous:
…[I]n extreme summary form, in 1996, Dr McKinnon, then aged 35 and a doctor employed by BHP (now called Bluescope Steel), attended a residential leadership course run for employees of BHP. The course was a fairly intense experience. At some stage during the course, McKinnon suffered something which in lay terms might be described as a nervous breakdown, from which he has never recovered. The case concerned whether BHP, or possibly the people who ran the course breached some duty towards Dr McKinnon and so caused this breakdown so that they should be required to compensate him for the consequences of this breakdown.
The amount at stake was substantial. The lost earning capacity for the rest of his working life of a doctor aged 35 is a considerable amount of money. Altogether there were 93 hearing days: 89 in which evidence was heard and a further 4 days for closing submissions.
Poor old Dr MacKinnon lost the case. He could not prove that BHP or the organisation which ran the course had breached their duty of care, and in any event, the trial judge formed the view that even if there had been a breach, he would have been unable to prove that the breach caused the injury. It seemed he had already been stressed before he attended the course, and had had some clashes with his then-boss. A number of incidents during the course exacerbated the tension between him and his boss, such that the plaintiff became mentally ill. But he was not forced to attend the course, or to continue attending it. There had been various measures put in place to try and monitor the mental health of the employees by both BHP and the organisation which ran the course. Dr MacKinnon had shown signs of increasing distress as the course went on, but the defendants had tried to alleviate and manage this.
I wonder whether companies will reconsider these kind of “team building” exercises in light of cases such as these? Even though BHP won, it must have been expensive to defend a claim like this. Personally, I won’t shed too many tears if courses like these go the way of the dodo!