After an exhilarating outdoor teambuilding training, there’s nothing more gratifying than overly delighted delegates, satisfied clients and a pleased training provider. But there’s more to outdoor teambuilding training than fun and fulfillment. Without careful design and delivery of outdoor teambuilding, its benefits may be wasted and its detriments may surface.
To prevent that, we need to take a closer look at the advantages and disadvantages of outdoor teambuilding programs so that we build on the former and avert the latter.
The motivation to learn
People have different motivations to learn. Outdoor teambuilding programs accentuate a sense of success and accomplishment in learning. In his book A Dynamic Theory of Personality, Kurt Lewin identifies four factors which lead to psychological success in learning:
• Learners are able to define their own goals
• Goals are related to the learners’ central needs and values
• Learners are able to define the paths to accomplishing their goals
• Goals represent a realistic level of aspiration for the learners
Feelings of success will only be fully realized when learners are encouraged to take as much responsibility as possible for their own behavior. Many well-intentioned outdoor programs fail because sessions are so tightly controlled that delegates feel more like passengers than active participants with jobs to do.
Learners must at least have influence on, and preferably should control the learning process.
Indoor experiential learning is often built around role-playing or business simulations, with participants acting within some situation. In outdoor training, it is easier to set real problems with real consequences and real constraints.
A team building a raft suffers a very real penalty if they do it badly. Such an undertaking produces interpersonal processes and behavior typical of the way the team operates. If someone feels underused or not appreciated, it is real and often resembles behavior in the workplace.
Any outdoor program or exercise has huge capacity for strong memories: of the experience; the environment; the weather; the learning. In outdoor teambuilding training, recall of events enables recall of learning.
Reduced barriers to learning
Seniority and expertise at the workplace are neutralized in outdoor training. Very few managers have outdoor skills; even those who have some special skills should find them of limited value on a well-designed outdoor program. So essentially all participants start off on an equal base.
Because the outdoor experience is so unusual and absorbing, many delegates – even from disparate backgrounds build very close bonds of companionship which far outlasts the course itself.
One reason why – among all outdoor experiential programs – teambuilding is so popular is that it helps people appreciate each other more, and understand the value of diversity in teams.
If the shared experiences are very memorable, the bonding process can be continually reinforced by recalling the activity, and also by identifying similar situations at work –
‘this is just like when we …’
It is quite possible that participants become so wrapped up in enjoying an outdoor exercise that learning is lost.
Sometimes teams who overemphasize the enjoyment factor tend also to have problems taking each other seriously at work.
This can largely be overcome by careful facilitation of the reflection stage following the exercise, helping delegates to recognize the power of the experience as well as the enjoyment.
Some people may overreact to the ‘color’ of an exercise and behave abnormally. This has an obviously unfavorable effect on the learning process and can be avoided by careful exercise design.
Delegates sometimes complain that the exercises are not realistic or are an unfair reflection of their working environment. There are two reasons for this:
1. It is reasonable criticism. If so, efforts should be made to remedy the situation. It is unhelpful and potentially destructive to learning to ask someone from a particular culture to behave in a way not acceptable in that culture. It would be unhelpful to encourage too much creativity and initiative in delegates from a highly structured and systemized organization.
2. It is a way of avoiding real issues. Sometimes people use denial (“I wouldn’t act like that in real life!”) to evade unwelcome truths. This can only be dealt with by careful review.
To summarize, the way to get the best of outdoor teambuilding training programs is to maximize the benefits and minimize the disadvantages.