Building staff motivation with playdough and lego

Corporate team-building is being taken to extreme lengths but the workers aren't united.

By Emma Tom

Those ABC staff members ticked off at management requests that they express their vision for the broadcaster’s future via children’s Lego blocks should stop complaining. It could have been so much worse.

Thanks to the increasing weirdo-isation of corporate team-building exercises, long-suffering wage slaves are having to plunge backwards on to "trust mats”, walk (literally) over hot coals and — egads! — ascend the vertiginous heights of the "accountability ladder” while being blasted with deafening replays of Eye of the Tiger.

All in the name of wringing every last drop of productivity from industry’s organic appendages until they’re reduced to a handful of withered human raisins . . . Sorry, I mean, of allowing valued workers to harness the power of the, um . . . core essencey thing that lies at the heart of every embiggered entrepreneurial, um … Oh, screw it. I mentioned the wringing, right?

Wacky motivational techniques have been in the news this week thanks to The Australian’s revelation that ABC staff in NSW have been asked to participate in a competition that involves using Lego to realise their visions of the corporation’s future.

A building station has been set up in the cafe of the ABC’s Sydney headquarters and kits have been sent to all regional offices. The prizes (a $100 ABC Shop voucher for the first-place getter and a $50 voucher for the second) are unlikely to spur the dedication demonstrated by that bunch of kids in Bangkok who, in 2003, used nearly 2.5 million Lego bricks to build a kilometre-long millipede.

But at least they’re an improvement on the galvanising techniques employed by Blake in the 1992 film of the David Mamet play Glengarry Glen Ross. "First prize is a Cadillac Eldorado,” the sales strategist tells his team of cold-calling real estate salesmen. "Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired."

Anyway. Converting Aunty into a Lego-only operation obviously has a number of distinct advantages. Thanks to the universal nature of the Danish-designed blocks, the heads of newsreaders from 1958 could still interlock with the bodies of those from 2010. As an added bonus, staff who are no longer as much fun to play with could simply be dismantled and rebuilt as robots, spanner-handed superheroes or edge-erific shrubs.

Unfortunately, personnel at the national broadcaster are unimpressed. "What’s next?” one senior broadcaster has asked. "Finger-painting and plasticine?”

The answer to this question is: quite possibly.

The head honcho from Toronto’s Xpeerience "experiential team building group" recommends finger-painting for effective team development, as well as water balloon tossing, human hula hooping and something called "Steal The Bandana + Knee Koo".

In Scotland, the Tree of Knowledge company encourages stressed-out students to create their dreams out of plasticine and whack ’em on top of travel clocks. Training manager Gavin "Mr Motivator" Oattes also asks participants to dangle a mint tied to a string over a compass then move it using their subconscious (or, if that fails, basic telekinesis).

The big trouble with industrial-strength leadership programs is they tend to generate industrial-strength cynicism. This scepticism takes a number of forms.

For starters, many courses framed as being in employees’ best interests seem just plain mean. Consider the Californian home security firm that allegedly attempted to boost productivity by demanding staff members eat baby food, wear nappies and endure spankings with a rival company’s yard signs.

The fine line between team-building and team-torturing was also revealed when a Utah "coaching" firm was sued for allegedly waterboarding an employee. "You saw how hard Chad fought for air right there,” the supervisor involved is reported to have said to his sales squad. "I want you to go back inside and fight that hard to make sales.”


Distrust arises here not just because of the nature of team-building enterprises but because of assumptions that managers are motivated by the bigness of their greeds rather than the goodness of their hearts. While the rhetoric is altruistic (it’s all about locating one’s inner superhero and so on), the reality is economic utility.

This sort of doublespeak strips all the fun out of ostensibly innocuous activities such as disco trivia, funk olympics and foam noodle sword fighting because everyone is aware of the serious side to these so-called "games".

As one of the human blocks in a team-building activity, you may feel you are under surveillance or that the powers-that-be are simply paying patronising lip service to ideals of consultation. Ironically, hurling yourself heart and soul into such extravaganzas may alienate your fellow flunkies because you’re seen as either hopelessly gullible (you actually believe this is about the abseiling?) or a not-to-be-trusted sycophant.

Suspicions that the team-building business involves bad faith also exist in a meta sense. Usually only over-the-top workshops get coverage in the media. Consider US company Wilderdom’s originally titled "Hunt & Kill an Animal & Skin & Eat It” activity, or Australia’s Sports Corp Elite’s "Corporate Hijack” experience, which involves blindfolds, Scarab boats, the thud, thud of Bell Ranger helicopters and a full (and presumably much-needed) debrief with an organisational psychologist afterwards.

Other team-building courses, however, are absurdly prosaic. Google "team-building" and virtually any verb and you’ll discover that most human endeavours have been elaborately rebranded, repackaged and re-priced as corporate team-building activities: cake decorating, sand-castle making, bike riding, lawn bowling, waltzing, basic cooking and geese observing are just seven examples.

It’s hard not to have qualms about the efficacy of such undertakings when they seem like such bald attempts at money grabbing.

All this cynicism is a shame, however, because — provided the chafey collars on the corporate logo-d T-shirts don’t cause eczema — there are undoubtedly benefits to be gained from basic team-building exercises.

Most work ethics involve discourses of discipline and routine. Yet the sort of creativity and improved interpersonal connections that can really benefit corporations do require chaos, risk and personal discombobulation.

Chief executives need to remember, however, that the best team-building exercise in the world will be a waste of time if employees return to a working culture that is stifling, disrespectful and dispiriting.

In other words, there’s no point treating them to a wild Knee Koo that helps them shake hands with their inner potentiality on the weekend if, on Monday morning, they’re once again sat on and engulfed by the oppressive buttocks of an outer autocrat.

The Australian

Related articles you might be interested in reading