Saturday, October 27, 2007

Corporate Retreats and the Stupid Games they Play

I was at a corporate retreat this week in Villa de Leyva. We do quarterly meetings with the national team (about 30 people) and I got the feeling that the last one wasn't particularly well received (Bucaramanga - lots of presentations, little participation). So this time, they hired 2 team building coaches to teach us how to work better as a team and facilitate the work sessions. None of us knew this, however, as no one explained the purpose of the meetings and we all walked in blind. This was evident in the intro meeting where we were asked to introduce ourselves and state our expectations. About half the people mentioned team building goals like communication, social activities, etc, while the other half mentioned substantive goals like creating a plan for the 2008 Work Plan. (I was tempted to say that I had none, but thought it best not to come across as totally arrogant). After the introduction, I fully expected to hear a small speech from one of the facilitators that would explain the purpose of the meetings (thinking that they didn't say anything on purpose) but that didn't happen. We simply adjourned for lunch.

At any rate, in the afternoon, we did all sorts of silly games which psychologists and team builders think are important but which I think are fundamentally a waste of time. For example, they started with a one-eyed tag game. You had to pursue your partner in a crowded space with only part of one eye uncovered. No explanation was given for why. Then we had to make a human box around the facilitator and run around the field keeping the box intact as she moved. This is make us work as a team. Then we had to throw colored balls into a bin in an exercise that depended on us acknowledging that only when all 4 teams had gotten all balls in the bin would we "win". This was to show us that even though we work in teams, we only win when we all win. Finally, in late afternoon, we had to climb over a wall way too high to climb. This was to show that if we all work together we can surmount seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

My co-workers seemed to be impressed. I wasn't. In fact, I found the whole thing to be juvenile and purposeless. We can indeed work as a team when it comes to leaping great walls. But that doesn't mean that we can work as a team in the office. The two are entirely unrelated because the bosses set the tone and they aren't team players; they don't trust anyone. But hey, I wasn't complaining too much because it beats a day in the office.

(Side note: Climbing over the wall was a dangerous and risky thing. They seriously should have thought better when over 50% of the team is old, fat, and weak. Because of those factors, I was the second one up the wall and had to help lift the majority of the aforementioned old, fat, and weak and let me just say, I speak Spanish but that's a whole lot of faith you're putting in someone who has difficulty communicating in the "heat of the battle" not to mention the fact that these men really did put themselves at serious risk of bodily injury. Had they fallen, they would have flattened the people on the ground providing a "safety net". Fortunately, no one got injured.)

Anyway, while Wednesday was entertaining if not mostly useless, Thursday was particularly unpleasant. The activity of which I speak is one in which we sat in two rows, facing each other. We had to speak to the other person for a minute - thanking them for whatever, telling them what we can help them with, etc. Then they spoke to us and did the same. Let me just say, I had virtually no one to thank for anyone and I didn't want to offer anything (although I did, repeatedly, and that's likely to make my work life even more crapilicious). At any rate, during this process, I had my first conversation with the new boss about my skills, abilities, and training, so that's something, right? It only took 4 months. Way to be on the ball guy.

The rest of the workshop was spent on substantive goals. The next year, the next quarter, etc. It was all very boring and only heightened my desire to leave this company and this work post haste. And, as I knew from the start, it just demonstrated once again that my personal goals (leaving the company, doing interesting work) were incompatible with the team goals and therefore there was little I was going to get out of the workshop. I knew this from the start and while I gave it my best to participate and not exclude myself on that basis (for I will undoubtedly be in this role for another 3 months), it still didn't make things very pleasant.

Really though, the fundamental aggravation was my team. I really just don't like some of them. Take Bobo the Clown for example. He's a mid-40s gentleman who frequently makes jokes that are either overtly sexual or personal about people in the team. Now, no one seems to mind, but if he did that in the US, he would be fired for creating a hostile work environment. Not only that though, he's just a drain on efficiency. I mean, there's a time for jokes and a time to shut the f*ck up and do some work, you know? He seems to never have learned that the world doesn't revolve around him and that it's ok if we just get to work.

Anyway, I had to talk with him during our 2-minute session and in this session he actually criticized me for being too focused on the job and told me his name for me is Tutankaman - yeah, the mummy in Egypt - because I don't move from my desk, I just concentrate and ignore all the bullsh*t around me. First time I've ever been criticized for being too studious. At any rate, now that I know his name for me, he proceeded to repeat the joke for the balance of the remaining time. So, since the gloves are off, I openly mocked him at the bar on Thursday night and repeatedly referred to him as Don Bobo.

On the other hand is Don Bobo's companion joke teller the Chipmunk. This is a man who I can't ever understand because he speaks as if his mouth were full of nuts. It's uncanny. He's also a wanna be stand up comedian who married and had kids early and openly regrets it. I only mention this because it's relevant background for the next story.

With these two wanna-bes is the office administrative assistant who has clear insecurities which Don Bobo always makes fun of and is generally unbalanced. I call her La Loba which is Colombian Spanish for a woman who is just looking for man so that she doesn't have to work and she can be the center of attention all the time, which is clearly what this woman wants. Everything is crisis for her. And she goes above and beyond to make sure everyone knows how crappy her life is, etc. I told her in our 1 on 1 session that she needs to calm down and tell us what she needs instead of making a crisis out of things. I doubt that it will have any effect.

Then, there is my direct supervisor who I think must be one of the least likable persons I've ever met. I think it might be because she is bipolar and isn't undergoing treatment, but that's just a theory. At any rate, I got the feeling that the entire workshop was subjected on the other 29 just because she needed some basic training in manners, team work, and treating others with respect (i.e., she needed to be un-nobbed). I avoided her all week.

In sum, these 4 characters who have a much vaster effect on the team than anyone else, essentially started to drive me crazy. I was getting nutty, really. To the point where I was on the verge of exploding or going postal on at least several occasions. So, you can imagine my total ire when, 30 kilometers outside of Bogota (about 30 minutes with traffic), the previously mentioned 4 insisted that we stop the bus and have a "break". And stop we did. Everyone got off except me and someone who was sick. I seethed for 30 minutes as they ate at one of those crappy little roadside places that serve you meat that was cooked 7 hours earlier and kept warm all day, where if you drink anything it better be bottled, and where you don't want to be found alone. Consequently, instead of arriving at home just after 7, I got in after 8.

I spoke to 2 people about the situation and they both agreed with one of them saying, in English, "Welcome to Colombia". So, if Colombia means replacing your real life for your work life, avoiding your family (the Chipmunk made plans to go out with some people last night, told his daughter on the phone that he would arrive too late to see her and that she should go to bed - yeah, family man), and spending as many hours as you can on the job, then that's not the Colombia I know or want to know. At any rate, when I got home I immediately treated myself to the most delicious hamburger that has ever been seen on the face of the earth as reward. Without that reward, I think I may very well have gone postal.

(Thank God there are two 3-day weekends on the way.)


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