Steering a 26-foot sailing vessel in choppy waters and leading a crew of four was something that Jody Miller, an administrative assistant at an inventory-services company in Columbus, Ohio, had never aspired to do. But here she was on the Chesapeake Bay, faced with a stiff wind, breakers slapping against the side of the boat and – another novel experience – her coworkers looking to her for leadership and direction.
For Miller, it wasn’t just being able to captain a ship for the first time that made the experience so rewarding. It was the fact that she got to call the shots for a change. “I was at the helm, charting a course and giving out orders to a crew of three management executives in positions senior to me,” she says. “It was amazing.”
Beyond the Slide Show
While negotiating white water and climbing rocks with the boss may not be your idea of a good time, adventure-themed retreats have become the motivational strategy of choice for many businesses. These are companies that have concluded that presenting another PowerPoint version of the company is unlikely to inspire or catalyze much of anything new.
Rather than another pep talk about what you should do, an adventure retreat offers a chance to experiment with what you can do, and to call on skills that might never come forth under typical workplace circumstances. Swapping the boardroom for nature, adventure retreats aim to improve work relationships by subjecting their participants to nail-biting trials that they must face together. The idea is that when people are taken out of their habitual routines and presented with unfamiliar physical challenges, they’re more likely to assume new roles and demonstrate new skills.
By design, most retreat activities are fairly demanding. They might include navigating a tricky current while white-water rafting, scaling a daunting rock face or dangling from ropes several feet above the ground. But the underlying idea is generally the same: By taking workers out of their ordinary context, you invite something extraordinary to occur. By forcing participants to work closely with each other, under pressure and in unfamiliar ways, you create a galvanizing experience – ideally one that has a marked and positive effect felt long after everyone has returned to the office.
Off the Ground
Considering the understandable ambivalence that many employees feel about attending an adventure retreat (after all, it’s an unfamiliar experience, it’s likely to present awkward social moments and it’s essentially engineered to create a certain amount of physical discomfort), it’s interesting that, generally, the most valuable outcome of these events is the surge of confidence that employees experience – in themselves and their coworkers.
“An adventure retreat may force you into physically uncomfortable situations, but really it’s all about creating a context where you get past your own perceptions of fear and failure,” says Christopher Multhauf, president of a Chicago-based nonprofit, who recently attended a corporate retreat hosted by Cornell Outdoor Education in Ithaca, N.Y., which included a one-day “high ropes” program.
Such programs, which typically consist of various exercises that take place several feet up in the air, are also great social equalizers. Employees from various departments and at all levels of seniority generally participate together. In the process, they not only get more insight into each other, they also get to know a surprising amount about themselves, their strengths, limitations, fears and insecurities.
“The simplest exercise was having to walk across a 15- to 20-foot beam about 25 feet off the ground,” recalls Multhauf. “The most difficult was a blindfolded tightrope walk. I was afraid of falling, but I was more afraid of failing in front of a bunch of virtual strangers.” After a day of dangling in the air, Multhauf was totally spent. “My legs felt like rubber,” he says. “I was physically and mentally exhausted, but I also felt great relief and a sense of accomplishment for pushing myself.”
While many of us might doubt that dangling from a rope in front of our coworkers could have any advantages at all, experts stand by the idea that the largest part of the benefits of an adventure retreat stem from the psychological risks they entail.
“Rock climbing is 90 percent mental and only 10 percent physical,” explains Susan Harper, PhD, a business psychologist. “If participants can be convinced to take a perceived personal risk, as with rock climbing, they tend to feel a greater sense of accomplishment. Not about the task itself, necessarily, but about the fact they pushed themselves to take the risk, that they had the nerve to try something new. Typically it is something they never imagined they could do.”
Often what we cannot imagine doing is something simple, like relinquishing control and delegating work to others. For example, as president of his organization, Multhauf is accustomed to assuming a large share of responsibility. At the Cornell retreat, he learned he also had many unconscious doubts and judgments about other people’s capabilities. In the end, he says he was pleasantly surprised at the grit and strength exhibited by those whom he had assumed would either fail or give up. And that experience made him revise his leadership philosophy. “I now try to be more participative in my leadership role, allowing employee feedback and involvement,” he says. “I try to challenge people to take more risks and worry less about failure. I have also come to appreciate different personalities and the fact that you need a diversified portfolio of skills and approaches in an organization.”
Of course, these retreats don’t just help leaders polish their management skills; they provide the opportunity for nonleaders and underlings to feel what it’s like to be in charge. As Miller says of her experience at the helm of a boat, “It was a definite change, me telling people, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’ I’m often involved in decision-making at work, but I don’t usually have the final say.”
After her stint at seamanship, Miller says she returned to work to find that she had a closer relationship with her fellow coworkers, who could now see her as a person capable of handling a challenge. The once-reserved Miller says she no longer feels intimidated approaching her former crew members, all of whom are in upper-management positions. “Now when I have a problem to discuss, I feel I can approach them as an equal,” she says.
While the increased elasticity and constant change inherent in today’s workplace has its advantages (more flexibility, less monotony), it can also present challenges and frustration – such as when unacquainted coworkers are thrown together on a project. Adventure retreats can help address this very directly: You may not usually take a keen interest in knowing about what makes the guy in the next cubicle tick, but when he’s going to be holding your rope while you dangle in the air at 30 feet, you’re suddenly compelled to get to know him better.
Although familiarity is known for breeding contempt, in the context of adventure retreats, it is more often the foundation of trust and respect. Olympic-style rowing on an adventure retreat taught Kevin Kulish, project director for a Norwegian engineering contractor in Houston, that there is strength in numbers. He also learned that working in sync with others was more important for achieving success than trying to outdo everyone else, or getting people to follow his lead.
“It takes a lot of energy to get six people rowing in the same rhythm,” says Kulish. He points out that it also requires a lot of trust, “because there are people working behind you and in front of you. You’re limited as to how much you can see of what others are doing. You have to have confidence that they’re doing their job and doing it right.”
As the pace of change increases in the marketplace and organizations become less hierarchical, “trust and teamwork matter more than ever,” says Karl Johnson, director of team building at Cornell Outdoor Education.
According to Johnson, there’s an important connection between outdoor expeditions and the buttoned-down world of business: “Both are far more likely to fail from lack of teamwork and leadership than from a lack of technical expertise.” The natural converse of this is that projects and businesses are far more likely to succeed in conditions of shared responsibility and mutual respect.
While the idea of an adventure retreat may make some of us squirm, the value of their potential benefits is hard to deny. Also encouraging is the indication that companies are finally learning that trust and respect can’t be created with a pep talk and a rah-rah corporate slogan. Sometimes, it takes a little sweat.