Dear Nonprofiteer, How about a game of Follow the Leader?

Dear Nonprofiteer,

Staff members of the department I run (we handle back-office functions for a university-based medical practice) always seem to be going off in different directions.  There’s very little communication, much less cooperation, so we end up with Receivable not knowing what Payable is doing, figuratively speaking.  Should I try taking the whole group out for one of those team-building retreats they do at corporations?  What do you think of those as a way to build trust?

Signed, Herding Cats

Dear Herding,

The Nonprofiteer thinks that she once took her incredibly fragmented and contentious staff for an afternoon of team-building which consisted of sitting in a hot tub together.  Everybody had a great time, and thanked her profusely.  The following day they returned–refreshed!–to sniping at one another and at her, ultimately tearing her limb from limb (figuratively speaking) with the assistance of the Board.

Life, as has been said, is not a dress rehearsal.  You don’t practice bonding with people–you either do it (through genuine shared experience) or you don’t.  If your staff isn’t working in harmony, it’s up to you to diagnose the source of the problem (too much bureaucracy?  no central gathering place or time?  one obnoxious employee whose very presence causes the others to scatter?) and cure it.  At the very least offer your preliminary diagnosis and solicit the staff’s feedback on it as well as on any possible cure. 

Leaving the office for a meal/retreat/paintball game is best done to celebrate a collective success.  But you won’t have any of those unless you can figure out how to make the gears mesh back at the office.

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2 Responses to “Dear Nonprofiteer, How about a game of Follow the Leader?”

  1. Paintball Jack Says:

    Your point of bonding needing to be acquired through experience is a good one. Very true, in fact. With that being said, and since you specifically mention paintball as a company event, I would like to add a few comments based on my experience as a paintballer.

    Sitting in a hot tub can be relaxing, but I do not see where it affords the group any opportunity to bond or develop communication skills. Hitting the paintball field, on the other hand creates a situation where coworkers must communicate with each other, watch each other’s backs, learn to depend on the actions of others, and provide assistance to their teammates. All this, in a fun, safe environment (yes, paintball is safe – it has far fewere injuries that any other outdoor sport).

    I do agree with the gist of your reply to Herding Cats, but I would behoove you to consider that perhaps their are activities such as paintbll that will achieve the desired goal (just not by merely sitting around together in a hot tub).

    Thanks for listening,

    Paintball Jack

  2. Nonprofiteer Says:

    Doubtless paintball is a wonderful sport. I stand by my view that in a work situation people learn to “communicate with each other, watch each other’s backs, learn to depend on the actions of others, and provide assistance to their teammates” best by working together. The nonprofit sector is particularly prone to confusing the personal with the professional, so if there’s a work problem it’s instantly translated as “she doesn’t like me.” It’s essential in such an environment to insist on a bright-line distinction between work and play, and to resolve work issues in the office where they occur. Unlike Rodney King, I don’t think the issue is whether we can all get along; it’s whether we can all get something done together–something to benefit our clients and the world.

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