If you don’t go fire-walking, you’re not a team player

So came the edict from the management of a large company, a brand known to everyone in America. And the luckless managers involved – well, they felt they had little choice. What are you gonna do – say no to the CEO and be branded as a wuss forever?

The only people who were keen that night on the beach were the CEO, who had read somewhere that fire-walking was good for team-building, and an overly eager “facilitator” from the fire-walking company who radiated the type of enthusiasm normally only found in small dogs and methamphetamine users.

“Okay!” chirped the “facilitator”. “Now walk across the hot coals and FEEL! THE POWER! OF! PERSONAL! PASSION! YOU! CAN DO IT!” And under the eye of the CEO – perhaps deciding who would get promoted and who wouldn’t – really, what else could you do?

Twenty apprehensive senior managers from the company stepped, as one, toward the short runway of hot coals and began to walk briskly across the fire pit as they’d been taught moments earlier. And seconds later, twenty screaming managers with feet ablaze were rolling on the sand and trying to crawl to the water’s edge.

One small problem – the facilitator had let them attempt the crossing while wearing rubber sneakers.

This is a true story, taken straight from the AP News Wire, and it required a fleet of 13 ambulances to get them all to hospital. Foot burns with melted rubber are especially nasty – how do you not walk on your feet? – and it took the entire senior management team offline for weeks.

Oh, and the best part? I forgot to tell you the name of the company. It was a famous chain specializing in fried food. No word on whether the ER doctors added any secret herbs and spices.

When charlatanistic garbage like this passes for team training, it’s no wonder that anything to do with group learning has such a bad reputation. That’s what people think of when they are sent on team development – firewalking, scary and dangerous things like high ropes and trust falls, and being patronized. Or, playing silly games that have no relevance to anything while being encouraged in a new-age, hippy-dippy way to hold hands and sing kumbaya while chanting hackneyed aphorisms like “there’s no ‘I’ in TEAM” in a way that they know full well does not apply to their own reality .

But there is a better way. There’s not much evidence to believe that getting a work team to do little puzzles and games will “teach them” how to operate better at work. If on the other hand a more sophisticated and modern view is taken, in which we use scientific evidence for action-learning based models that actually do allow the right kind of rehearsal to improve team dynamics, it is possible to get real workplace benefits by allowing teams to rehearse good and work-relevant strategies. For example, how do we share information at the beginning of a job to make sure that we all understand the goal?

Like researching a good surgeon, it’s all a matter of finding someone who is properly qualified and has the modern, scientifically-verified and practically-proven evidence that they can do what they claim.

But if you must go firewalking, know this. It’s nothing but a trick of physics – the same as running your finger quickly through a candle flame – and has nothing at all to do with teamwork or attitude whatsoever. But, it does depend on human skin (covered in ash) taking a few seconds to heat up before you burn.

So leave the rubber sneakers on the beach.

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