Monday, March 22, 2010

The Problem of Forced Fun

Grant McCracken in a guest post on
Visitors touring the Zappos headquarters in Las Vegas are greeted noisily. Staffers blow horns and ring cowbells to bid them welcome. This sort of thing puts my teeth on edge. Call me a grinch. Call me a humorless, life-hating, stick in the mud, but commandeering personal emotions in the interest of forced conviviality seems to me wrong.
I like to think that only because he's writing in the Harvard Business Review did he use the phrase "puts my teeth on edge." I'm sure he has a non-HBS-approved way of phrasing that I could agree with.
Guy Kawasaki in Reality Check:
Who among us has not had the horrible experience of a management offsite to build teamwork and to craft a mission statement? The offsite went like this:
Day 1: Teambuilding. First, form cross-functional teams so that engineering has to work with sales. Then tolerate a day of exercises such as, "Each of you will come up to the front of the group, turn your back to the group, close your eyes, and fall backward in to the arms of your colleagues. This will teach you to communicate with and trust your fellow employees."
Day 2: Crafting the mission statement: In a hot, crowded room with a pad of white paper and a facilitator who knows nothing about your business, you are going to collectively craft a mission statement. Everyone who is at director level and above in the company is there - that's sixty people. You each figure you get one word, so at the end of the day, you have a sixty-word mission statement that is good for the customers, shareholders, whales and dolphins.
Organizers of events that bring together people who have never met start with a nice, easy, fun teambuilding activity. Why? It seems just because that's what you do.
I have no problem with the concept of teambuilding- of getting to know people you might not know otherwise, however, I do have a problem with the lame attempts to make that happen- like trying to get all the people in your group to stand on a really small square of fabric, or standing in a circle singing songs that should have been left behind in elementary school or trying to fill a bucket by passing spoonfuls of water to each other. Really. Seriously. I'm not making this up. It happened.

In a situation where no on knows anyone else, everyone will show up with their masks on. They are trying to fit in to the group by feeling out the group's collective vibe. They'll pretend they are into this lame activity because they don't want to stick out too much- which is really hard not to do in a situation like this. Or they actually think this is fun. In which case they come from a different planet than I do.

It's clear what the intent of the teambuilding exercise is, but I find that instead of bringing people closer together, this first impression sets the tone for the group and their subsequent interactions. When everyone showed up they had their masks on and this activity hasn't succeeded in getting to the interesting person behind the boilerplate- it just ends up adding more superficiality. It sets a tone that's fake and inauthentic. It turns a potential conversation between two interesting people on a topic with some substance into a conversation with a level of superfluousness normally reserved for two emotionally incontinent capital-L liberal college students.

In Changing My Mind Zadie Smith writes about David Foster Wallace describing a boy observing the other people at a pool jumping off a diving board:
That mix of the concrete and the existential, of air and water, of the eternal submerged in the banal. And boredom was the great theme of both. But in the great theme there is a great difference. Wallace wanted to interrogate boredom as a deadly postmodern attitude, an attempt to bypass experience on the part of a people who have become habituated to a mediated reality. “It seems impossible,” the boy thinks, arranging his face in fake boredom to match the rest, "that everybody could really be this bored."
Substitute "bored" for "easily enthused" or "inauthentic" and you have how I feel in situations of forced fun. Maybe this is optimism talking, but I think that once you get past the boilerplate just about anyone will effuse on some meaningful topic. But when you look across the circle and see them belting out Frère Jacques, it's tough not to question if there's actually a real person in there.


I have to thank David Foster Wallace for the term "emotionally incontinent"

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