Paintballing The Boss: Office Team-Building Exercises Gone Bad

Jul 8, 2014
Originally published on July 8, 2014 9:51 am

Who can forget that game of Twister played in a skirt? Or the failed "trust fall" where the boss ends up on the ground?

Office team-building exercises often create lasting memories — just not necessarily ones you want to remember.

Several years ago Ben Johnson worked at a health foods store in Iowa. He remembers store management stringing up a donkey piñata to pump up the workers.

"Pinned to its chest was a name tag for a rival store," Johnson says. "They explained to everyone that this was, in fact, an effigy and that we were going to work together to figuratively, literally destroy the competition."

In lieu of candy, the piñata was filled with dollar coins. An overzealous middle manager with a baseball bat was first up, and he obliterated it.

"So when this thing explodes, dozens of the dollar gold Sacagawea coins fly through the air everywhere," Johnson says. "Someone in the front row takes one in the face and goes down. They ricochet off the walls. And when the coins finally stop, I emerge from underneath the table, there's just a stunned silence."

The coins are like blood money, and no one picks them up. Johnson thinks of the whole fiasco as an omen since the store eventually fell to the competition.

Johnson is now a manager at a library, and he says there's an ironic twist: He's been tasked with organizing his own team-building event.

"I'm now that guy; I'm that manager subjecting people to these things," Johnson says.

Around the world, there are thousands of teamwork facilitators. Michael Cardus is one of them. He founded Create-Learning in Buffalo, N.Y. He says the point of trying something new — something that requires cooperation — is to inspire different methods of problem solving.

" 'Hey, this is novel. This is different.' And then you can hopefully have them talk about what worked in that activity and how they can transfer it back to the workplace," Cardus says.

But sometimes it backfires.

Several years ago, things didn't go well for Peter Brooks when his former employer bused his division to a suburban Washington, D.C., field. They were divided into teams for a round of paintball.

"We were issued safety goggles and paintball guns, one of which immediately misfired. It hit a district manager in the crotch," Brooks says.

He remembers that the game quickly devolved into screaming, pleading and retaliatory rage — the paintballs left large welts.

"A lot of people pointed their guns right at their supervisors, me included," Brooks says. "I shot mine right in the middle of the back, and then when he spun around with revenge in his eyes, I surrendered."

The bus ride home, he says, was dead silent.

"I think we were all really unprepared at the impact, literally — emotionally and physically — the impact of shooting paintballs at each other," Brooks says. "People were very mad at each other. There were apologies. There were heartfelt apologies."

Anne Thornley-Brown, president of Executive Oasis, which specializes in corporate team building, says there's a whole subcategory of bad exercises she calls extreme team-building.

"There are some CEOs who are weekend warrior types, and what they may do is compel the members of their team to participate in some really risky activities," she says.

Willy McGee's extreme experience happened last year during a retreat to Montauk, N.Y. The company he worked for was clearly in financial straits and full of dissent and discontent. But McGee says the CEO hoped to find salvation through group inspiration and seemed eager to appear cool and edgy to his young, 20-something staff.

"I think in order to win people back on his favor, he started going around and trying to hand out drugs," McGee says.

Psilocybin mushrooms, to be precise.

"So, at this point, about half the staff is arguing about who has it worse, at which job, and how we're getting screwed and what we're going to do next. And the other half started to eat psychedelic mushrooms," McGee says.

He remembers that after a midnight parade and a degree of mayhem, most of the employees settled down at the beach.

"We had this moment together on top of this lifeguard tower where we realized, 'Well, we're not going to save the business, but we could at least save the relationships here,' " McGee says.

The business closed in September, but McGee remains in touch with his former colleagues. Surviving trauma, he says, is its own kind of team-building.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Good morning. The office teambuilding exercise can create lasting memories just not necessarily ones you want to remember. At the very least, they can feel forced and awkward or worse. Maybe that trust fall didn't go as planned.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: Are you going to catch me?

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Yes. Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: Ready to fall.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Fall. Oh my. Fall.

MONTAGNE: That's a YouTube video of a sales team dropping their exercise leader. They aren't alone. NPR's Yuki Noguchi recounts tales of teambuilding gone bad.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: The intent behind teambuilding is to foster camaraderie so people can work together. That was the idea the health food store in Iowa where Ben Johnson worked several years ago. To pump workers up, Johnson says, store management strung up a donkey pinata.

BEN JOHNSON: Pinned to its chest was a name tag for the rival store, and so they explained to everyone that this was, in fact, an effigy. And that we were going to work together to figuratively, literally, destroy the competition.

NOGUCHI: In lieu of candy, the pinata contains dollar coins. An overzealous middle manager with a baseball bat is first up. He obliterates it.

JOHNSON: So when this thing explodes, dozens of the dollar gold Sacajawea coins, you know, fly through the air everywhere. Someone in the front row just, like, takes one in the face and goes down. They, like, ricochet off the walls. When the coins finally stop, I emerged from underneath the table and there's just like a stunned silence.

NOGUCHI: The coins are like blood money. No one picks them up, and the whole fiasco, Johnson says, was an omen. The store eventually fell to the competition. Around the world, there are thousands of teamwork facilitators. Michael Curtis is one of them. He founded Create Learning in Buffalo, New York. He says the point of trying something new - something that requires cooperation - is to inspire different ways of problem solving.

MICHAEL CURTIS: Hey, this is novel. This is different. And then you can hopefully have them talk about what worked in that activity and how they can transfer back to the workplace.

NOGUCHI: But sometimes, it backfires as it kind of did for Peter Brooks. Several years ago, his former employer bussed his division to a suburban Washington, D.C. field and divided them into teams for a round of paintball.

PETER BROOKS: We were issued safety goggles and paintball guns, one of which immediately misfired. It hit a district manager in the crotch.

NOGUCHI: Brooks says the game quickly devolved into screaming, pleading and retaliatory rage. The paint balls left large welts.

BROOKS: A lot of people pointed their guns right at their supervisors, me included. I shot mine right in the middle of the back, and then when he spun around with revenge in his eyes, I surrendered.

NOGUCHI: The bus ride home, he says, fell dead silent.

BROOKS: I think we were all really unprepared at the impact, literally, emotionally and physically - the impact of shooting paint balls at each other. People were very mad at each other. There were apologies. (Laughing) There were, you know, heartfelt apologies.

NOGUCHI: Anne Thornley-Brown is the president of Executive Oasis, which does corporate team building. She says there's a whole subcategory of bad exercises she calls extreme teambuilding.

ANNE THORNLEY-BROWN: There are some CEOs who are weekend warrior types and what they may do is compel the members of their team to participate in some really risky activity.

NOGUCHI: Willy McGee's (PH) extreme experience happened last year during a retreat to Montauk, New York. The company he worked for was clearly in dire financial straits and full of dissent and discontent. But McGee says the CEO hoped to find salvation through group inspiration and also seemed eager to appear cool and edgy to his young twenty-something staff.

WILLY MCGEE: I think in order to win people back on his favor, he started going around trying to hand out drugs.

NOGUCHI: Psilocybin mushrooms to be precise.

MCGEE: So this point, about half the staff is arguing about who has it worse - which job and how we're all getting screwed and what we're going to do next, and the other half had started to eat psychedelic mushrooms.

NOGUCHI: Mayhem and a midnight parade ensues. Most of the employees eventually settled down at the beach.

MCGEE: We had this moment together on top of this lifeguard tower where we realized, like, well, we're not going to save business, but we can at least save the relationships here.

NOGUCHI: The business closed in September, but McGee remains in touch with his former colleagues. Surviving trauma, he says, is its own kind of teambuilding. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.