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Is Drinking Beer Good for Teambuilding?
Putting "old school" teambuilding to the test.

There is no school like the old school. And good old school styled team building is when the boss takes the team out for beers. It's tried and true, but is it really effective?

Consider that a good team building experience should:

1) Provide a shared experience
2) Promote disclosure among participants
3) Level the playing field between colleagues
4) Build trust
5) Increase self-awareness

Let's break it down and see if old-school team building works. How does drinking beer with a team of colleagues score on these five teambuilding elements? We'll rate on a scale of 1 (low) to 10 (high).

1) Drinking beer provides a shared experience.

In its extreme, a shared experience is the Sgt. Hulka boot camp phenomenon. Put people through an activity where they have an intense experience (even a bad one), and it usually builds camaraderie over the long term. It's the common bond of accomplishment, a common goal and shared memories.

We'd give beer a 5 out of 10 on this one. Sometimes the challenges around the experience aren't very challenging, and the whole beery evening can be forgettable. Other times stories are exchanged, bar games are played, and the evening leaves everyone more relaxed, and aware of some different things that are happening in the lives of their colleagues.

2) Drinking beer promotes disclosure.

Disclosure builds trust. Trust builds team. Why? When you tell me something about yourself, you are making an investment in me, in us. You grant me the honor of trusting me with that information. Second, your disclosure may reveal some talent about yourself that I'm not aware of; a talent that might one day provide me with some comfort when the time comes for me to choose whether I can rely on you or not. For example, a manager finds out his new analyst is also an amateur thespian. She may then be more comfortable when the analyst has to make an important investor presentation during her vacation week.

Beer gets a 9 out of 10 on disclosure. Although, beer can prompt the disclosure of wrong information, especially if one drinks too much, the pub loosens the environment and allows for some history on each of us to be passed around. The environment promotes disclosure. The purpose of being at a bar is to socialize. Mostly, this is a good thing.

3. Drinking beer levels the playing field.

The hierarchy of the office needs to be set aside as much as it can for hidden talents and skills to come out, and for mutual respect and relationships to grow. Everybody has to feel like they can contribute to whatever is happening. If we all feel like we have to do what the boss says, period, then the playing field isn't level.

Beer gets a 7 on this one. Once you're in the bar, the hierarchy gets all turned around. Yes, you'll probably still laugh at the boss's jokes, but the leader of the experience is more likely to be the most engaging member of the team, or the best darts player, or the funniest. The downside? Some people don't like bars or pubs, so some members of the team might not participate at all. (Actually the Down Side is not a bad name for a pub, is it?)

4. Drinking beer builds trust.

A good experience forces us to rely on others to succeed, and requires different skills than are necessarily required to do our day-to-day jobs. This is unlikely to happen at the bar, unless your team gets to win at darts against the forces of evil (talk about "old school"), who happen to have chosen the same bar for their teambuilding.

Beer gets a 3 on trust building. Generally, no direct trust building is going on here. But, it still gets a 3 because we can put a checkmark in the 'promotes disclosure' box and as we've said, that's a foundation step to building trust.

5. Drinking beer increases self-awareness

A good teambuilding experience includes time set aside for structured introspection, where participants have a chance to debrief their reactions to the experience and think about their reactions, their communication and their effect on others.

Other than the slovenly cab ride home and taking your tie or earrings off in front of the bathroom vanityÉnot much. Drinking beer gets a 1 on self-awareness.

Total score: Drinking Beer scores a 25 out of 50 on our teambuilding scale. Significant, but not a homerun.

But let's look at that score from a glass half-full perspective. Armed with this awareness about what makes a good teambuilding experience, and knowing that a simple trip to the local watering hole can get you halfway there, it can't be that tough to come up with a plan for a potentially great teambuilding experience.

When most people think of a team building experience, it usually involves some increased component of physical risk; the much cliched trust fall, a ropes course, a scavenger hunt, or a mock Olympics. Hidden talents emerge, the hierarchy can shift, and if it's set up correctly and well debriefed, self-awareness is boosted. We help each other through this challenge, and we all have a good laugh and feel good about being supported and supporting our colleagues. A physical team challenge gets people out of their heads, and out of the hierarchy - especially if it's professionally facilitated like the Outward Bound adventures - and can be the right call to help a groups improve their team performance.

There are risks.

What's the Down Side? (besides a great name for a bar?)

One drawback is that it's too far removed from the work environment, and without facilitated dialog, the potential learning never surfaces. A second problem is that someone gets hurt. As quick as it takes to get poked in the eye or sprain an ankle, the benefit from the experience can be undone.

The truth is you can build a sense of team around any type of content. Make a wish about what your team could do better, and turn that wish into a team-building, skill-building event. Instead of mountain climbing, make the focus overcoming obstacles using new problem solving skills. Instead of cooking, make the content a recipe for listening and giving feedback. Instead of wine tasting: a meeting on how to cultivate an environment that values innovation. Instead of a scavenger hunt, a public speaking session on finding ways to give clear and effective presentations. It's all about layering: being deliberate about achieving multiple objectives whenever your team is face-to-face.

Build team and at the same time build durable skills; skills that are useful professionally and personally, and lay the groundwork for your team to communicate and work more effectively together.

And then, celebrate with a beer, because it sure beats a poke in the eye.

©2009 by Tim Dunne

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