Thursday, April 30, 2009 by Dave Blum

Some time back, while leading a corporate scavenger hunt in Ventura, CA,  I was required to put up a sign on a wall, down along the beach-side promenade. No big deal.  Treasure hunt clues often require the placing of a sign of some sort.  I took great care to stash my placard near the ground level — in plain sight to be sure, but pretty darn inconspicuous.  Imagine my surprise, however, when, at the the end of the hunt, half the teams reported that they couldn’t find the sign!

At last, unable to hold in their snickering any longer, one of the teams blurted out, “Oh, were you looking for this?”  And they handed me the sign!

As far as business team building exercises go, this one was pretty revealing. By stealing a sign and altering the game course, a team had clearly “cheated” on the treasure hunt — and interestingly, they seemed to feel absolutely no remorse about it.  On the contrary, they even appeared to be feeling rather proud of themselves.  What was going on here?

A couple of things:

1) The “cheating” team clearly believed that this was a “competitive game”, with different rules of morality than “real life”.  Where they might not steal a community object (like a sign) back at the workplace (a setting in which they’re likely to have repeated and ongoing interactions with their co-workers), all’s fair in love, war and scavenger hunts.  The treasure hunt in Ventura was essentially a “one shot” deal — one round, game over — with no ongoing transactions or iterations.  Heck, why not cheat–you won’t have to play with these guys again!

2) There were no perceived negative ramifications for their actions.  As this was merely a fun corporate team building activity, SO WHAT! if the cheaters didn’t earn a lousy prize at the end!  No big deal.  The “fun” of messing with other teams would be its own reward.

Regarding point #1, it’s true that games are not “real life”.  When we agree to play in a “competitive game”, we assume that everyone will be working to further their own self interests.  Think Poker or Monopoly, for example.  In the workplace, however, we have to be more careful about our actions — the person you lie to today might be someone you have to get along with tomorrow — a colleague, a teammate, a supervisor, a client.

As for point #2, there is no question that there are extremely negative ramifications in the business world for cheaters, such as:

A:  People will spread the word that you’re a cheater and your REPUTATION will be ruined.  No one will want to work with you.

B:  You’ll be THREATENED BY LEGAL ACTION.

So what are we to conclude from all this?:

1) As the leaders of office team building games, we should make sure that our activities simulate the real world. That means creating activities that involve multiple rounds.  That way, if a team cheats, they may have to later pay the consequences of distrust from other teams, who will be unwilling to cooperate with them in subsequent stages of the game.  (This, of course, suggests that a cross-team cooperative element be added to the activity.)

2) We should remind people that even in corporate team challenges like a treasure hunt, your behavior IS observed, your reputation CAN be damaged. Pretty much ALL social interaction is remembered, whether at the workplace or during team building exercises.  The other team members WILL file away in their memories the actions of those who cheated, thus eroding future workplace trust.

What do YOU think?

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