There’s a popular social movement in schools these days, compelling teachers and coaches to minimize competition on the playground while increasing collaboration. It’s gone so far that one school I heard about even removed the scoreboard from their high school football field, insisting that keeping score put too much pressure on the students and inflated the competitive element, reducing self-esteem.
A few days ago, I watched a fascinating movie from 2008 — “The Wave” — available widely on DVD, Netflix, etc. Although the film takes place in Germany (with an all-German cast), it’s actually a dramatization of the true story of an unusual teaching experiment conducted by Ron Jones at his Palo Alto, CA high school in 1969. As the “The Wave” begins, young teacher Rainer Wenger finds himself compelled to teach a one-week course on the topic of “autocracy” — not his favorite subject. After his first class — taught in the traditional, lecture manner — fails to inspire much interest from his students, Rainer decides to try an experiment.
One of the most popular axioms in western culture is the Golden Rule, loosely summarized as “Treat others as you would like to be treated yourself.” Although valid in general (who doesn’t want more love, respect and kindness?), the Golden Rule is flawed when it comes to personality styles and preferences. People just aren’t all wired alike; they have different needs, different ways they want to be treated. And this is particularly true during times of stress. At work, it is the leader’s task not only to know how he, himself, prefers to be treated in times of hardship, and how his staff might react in the pressure cooker, but also what each of his teammates might need in order to recover from the crisis and get back on track.
Earlier this year, I was in Denver preparing for a treasure hunt. The night before the program, the client asked me to join the group for a drink at the hotel where we were staying. Expecting fifteen people when I arrived in the hotel lounge, I was surprised to see that only fourteen team members were present. Who was missing? “Oh, that’s just Mark being Mark” explained my client contact, Anthony. “He doesn’t believe in business-related socializing during his ‘private time.’”
Explaining what their son does has never been an easy task for my parents. “Oh, there’s Mrs. Weinstein—her son’s a doctor. And Mrs. Honeywell—her daughter’s an attorney. Our son?—oh, uh, yes, he’s a teambuilding trainer. No, no, I don’t know exactly what he does either, but he’s quite good at it, I can assure you.”
With an eye towards helping them out before their next awkward cocktail party, I embarked on a Google “treasure hunt” this morning in hopes of discovering a satisfactory working definition of “teambuilding program.”
By Jennifer van Stelle, PhD Sociology, Stanford University
Some time ago, Dave Blum and I were discussing the positive impact of teambuilding on organizations. I’m an organizational sociologist – I study how organizations work (or don’t work), how people inside companies relate to each other, and how organizations themselves relate to other organizations. Dave claimed that teambuilding can improve a company’s financial performance. Of course my response, as an academic, was, “But has this been measured? Where are the studies?” In the end, I was intrigued enough by the topic that I offered to research and write an article about it for a subsequent issue of his newsletter. Here, then, are the results of my research-from a sociologist’s standpoint.
Hobbling down a cobblestone street in New Orleans’ French Quarter, her hand pressed firmly to her lower back, Catherine is clearly struggling with her first treasure hunt experience — and boy is she not happy about it! Her boss Steve — far, far ahead – is setting a breakneck pace, so intent is he on solving the next clue and leading his team to a morning victory. At last the lunch break arrives and, not surprisingly, all hell breaks loose! Catherine is spitting nails with Steve for driving the team so hard as to ignore her ongoing recovery from recent back surgery. Steve is hight on the defensive, declaring he was only pushing everyone so hard for the sake of team motivation and performance.
What has gone wrong here, and how can it be resolved?
“Competition is the worst possible arrangement as far as relationship is concerned” –educator Alfie Kohn (1986)
A few weeks back I was invited to observe a teambuilding session involving the cooking of a group meal — call it “team cuisine”. Working in small groups, each team was assigned the task of preparing pizza, salad and dessert for the day’s lunch. The activity started with a food auction, with teams bidding for ingredients. It continued with an hour of food preparation, after which each of the team’s “culinary creations” were judged by a panel for both taste and presentation values. The winning team received a nice prize-and bragging rights.
Sounds like fun, right?
There’s an old story that goes like this:
“An elderly man has endured the insults of a crowd of ten-year-olds each day as they passed his house on their way home from school. One afternoon, after listening to another round of jeers about how stupid and ugly and bald he was, the man came up with a plan. He met the children on his lawn the following Monday and announced that anyone who came back the next day and yelled rude comments about him would receive a dollar. Amazed and excited, they showed up even earlier on Tuesday, hollering epithets for all they were worth. True to his word, the old man ambled out and paid everyone. “Do the same tomorrow,” he told them, “and you’ll get twenty-five cents for your trouble.” The kids thought that was still pretty good and turned out again on Wednesday to taunt him. At the first catcall, he walked over with a roll of quarters and again paid off his hecklers. “From now on,” he announced, “I can give you only a penny for doing this.” The kids looked at each other in disbelief. “A penny?” they repeated scornfully. “Forget it!” And they never came back again.”
– Alfie Kohn, Punished by Rewards – The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes, 1993, Houghton Mifflin, pg. 71-72
Every week for over 15 years now, I’ve spent my Sunday afternoons playing pick-up volleyball in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. The group’s official name is the San Francisco International Volleyball Club, but it’s not as organized as all that. There are no league tournaments to compete in, no trophies awarded at the end of a successful season. Our interest lies simply in laughing and joking with friends, and playing the game that we all love.
Every session of Sunday volleyball plays out like a Homeric epic, a Shakespearean tragedy. There’s laughter and tears; emergent heroes; flaring tempers; and occasionally, some truly superior volleyball.
If ever there was a spot to observe teams and team dynamics in action – in all their glorious successes and ignominious failures – this is the place!