Friday, June 5, 2009 by Dave Blum

Whether I’m doing corporate team building in Atlanta, Boston, Dallas, or Los Angeles, the same question from managers and supervisors comes up repeatedly:

“Should I take part in the activity?”

The answer is not as easy as it sounds!

My temptation is to reply, unilaterally, “Of course!”  After all, how can you model inclusion and collaboration if, as a manager,  you don’t participate in the business team building exercise?  And in most cases, this works out fine.  You share the office team building activity with your staff and they see you as a real person, just like them, struggling along with the same team challenges, side by side.

But there’s a possible downside.   Yesterday, for example, I was the team building facilitator for a hunt in Miami South Beach.  The co-owner of the business, Alan, joined one of the teams and decided, unbeknownst the others, to assume a secondary role in the group, allowing his teammates to lead.  The problem was that no leadership emerged!  Instead, his teammates kept looking to Alan for help on the scavenger hunt list, and Alan kept deferring to their judgment, so that *no decisions were made* and *no one kept track of the process and the big picture*!  Not surprisingly, chaos ensued.  It would be easy to assume that the problem was Alan’s failing to be transparent about his intentions (to hold back); this conclusion holds some merit.  But even if Alan had made his approach clear beforehand, would leadership have emerged in the presence of the company owner?  Wouldn’t people, perhaps, have continued subconsiously to defer to Alan, not wishing to “push around the boss”?   Just by his very presence, Alan effeced the team dynamics, in the same way that shining light on sub-atomic elements changes the particles.

Power dynamics are tricky.  I’m not sure what the right answer is–hopefully I’ll have more data tomorrow, when I lead another scavenger hunt for Alan and the Orlando division of his company.  In this upcoming office team building game, Alan and his HR director are planning on forming their own team, in competition with the others.  I’ll let you know how it goes.

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