By Michael P. Regan
The Associated Press
Arthur Hull calls it the "sneak attack."
A company tells employees to gather in a conference room under the guise they'll hear a lecture from an expert in their industry. When they arrive, they find "this guy who's got a funny hat and vest" and that they'll spend the next hour or two banging on drums and shaking maracas.
"I can see the hairs go up on the back of their necks. ... 'We've been captured!' " said Hull, a professional drum-circle facilitator from California.
This and other methods of preventing workplace malaise and building teamwork have gone from eccentricities of the dot-com era to common events in corporate America. Team-building exercises can also have executives and their underlings dashing around on scavenger hunts, dangling from ropes and racing everything from dragon boats to dragsters.
The quirky exercises may become even more common, some say, if the job market improves enough that companies find themselves in need of novel ways to try to retain employees.
But it's not clear whether they're worthwhile, or just a waste of time.
"I can understand the appeal, "said Michael Warech, an organizational psychologist with the Washington, D.C., human resources firm Watson Wyatt. "It's obviously much more exciting to go to a dragon-boat race than to go to a classroom with a standup lecture ... But as a scientist, an empiricist, it's a tougher sell for me."
Chris Neck, a management professor at Virginia Tech, has studied research on the effectiveness of team-building exercises. He said that so far, there's little compelling evidence of long-term benefits for entire teams, but there does seem to be proof that individuals' attitudes and teamwork skills improve immediately after the exercises.
"If you get anyone out of their traditional boundaries, get them in a new environment, that helps creativity," he said.
A good time was had
Many who have participated in the events swear by them. Consider Emily Burkle, who suffered a sprained elbow and a "bruised ego" when she crashed an Indy-style race car during a team-building event with her company, the Indianapolis ad firm Hirons & Co.
"I would do it again," said the 25-year-old public relations specialist. "Don't tell my mom, though."
Then there's Fred Cerrone, co-founder and president of Day Hospitality, an Atlanta company that owns and manages 15 Marriott and Hilton hotels. Each year he piles his managers into a bus for a two-day adventure, telling them little in advance except clues like "bring a flashlight, bring toilet paper."
Two years ago, he took them on a whitewater rafting trip. And although Cerrone said he has about 20 years and 50 pounds on most of his managers, he was right there on the river with them - until they hit a rock and the 57-year-old "shot out of that raft like a cannonball."
Cerrone became trapped under the rapids and almost drowned before resurfacing with a broken toe. The trauma didn't spoil him on team-building events; last year he took his managers rappelling.
"At some point, you have to step out on faith and take a risk," he said.
Not all exercises are so dangerous. At J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., managers of retail bank branches are divided into teams and sent out on scavenger hunts in the middle of a week of more traditional training. They get 45 minutes to find a shot glass, a chef's hat, a copy of The Old Farmer's Almanac and other items.
The idea is to teach the "discipline of execution," so managers can "bust through the roadblocks and do whatever it takes to get things done and get results," said Jeffrey Hawkins, the bank's senior vice president of branch performance and growth.
The rhythm solution
Drum circles also have become a popular way to try to build teams without breaking bones.
A company called Drum Cafe, which started in South Africa, now has drum-circle facilitators in five U.S. cities and holds events at dozens of major corporations.
Demand has been so great that Hull, often referred to as the father of the corporate drum-circle movement, trains new facilitators to lead their own circles. He has a warehouse full of some 10,000 percussion instruments, with another 200 in storage in Britain and another 300 stashed away in Beijing.
A handful of companies have given drums a more permanent role. Toyota's training center in Torrance, Calif., spent $20,000 to outfit a room on the top floor of its building with drums for 40 people. Drum circles are held about twice a week.
"It was such a powerful metaphor for high-performance teaming, and what those high-performance teams can look like," said Ron Johnson, who runs the Toyota drum room.
Dr. Barry Bittman, a Meadville, Pa., neurologist, led a study of workers who participated in regular jam sessions using drums and a keyboard at the Wesbury United Methodist Retirement Community in Meadville. The results showed an 18 percent reduction in employee departures.
"A typical worker may be experiencing most of his or her stress from associates that they depend on in their team," said Bittman. "My personal belief is that recreational music making has great potential in bridging the divide and making people work together on a common ground."
Seems like recess
Not everyone is convinced, especially when high-level executives are the ones pounding the drums.
Hellen Davis, a Malvern, Pa., corporate strategist and author of a book called The 21 Laws of Influence, recently spoke at an event for executives of Raytheon, the Waltham, Mass., defense contractor. She was asked to stick around for the drum circle, but it didn't impress Davis.
Although some people enjoyed it, "my opinion was that it got them out of work and they didn't have to do anything. Other people were rolling their eyes, and said it was a complete waste of time," she said.
Still, Davis is not soured on all team-building events. She's scheduled to accompany a group of banking executives to a Florida wind-tunnel that emulates the thrill of skydiving.
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