If you’ve been a cubicle slave for any length of time (as I have), you’ve probably heard the term “team-building.” “Team-building” is a management euphemism that, as near as I can tell, was coined by some management consultant who never actually held a real job trying to con corporations into paying him huge sums of money. Problem is, it worked.
Technically, “team-building” is supposed to be a way for companies to get more productivity out of groups of employees by building trust and interpersonal skills. In the real world, the one that you and I live in, it’s nothing more than a bunch of horseshit, shoveled by lobotomized managers under the spell of high-priced consultants. These consultants get companies to pay them large sums of money for the purpose of sitting the productive workers (that’s you and me, folks) in a room and telling us a bunch of crap that we already knew by third grade unless any of us were anti-social psychopaths on the level of, say, Ted Bundy.
Today, Dear Reader, I give you what I call The Greatest Team-Building Story What’s Ever Done Been Told. I swear on a stack of IBM technical manuals that this is 100% Grade A no-bullshit truth. The locations herein are true. The events herein are true. I’ll omit the names to protect the guilty, but trust me, if I used them, I’d use the real ones. The statute of limitations ran out a loooong time ago.
The year was 1989. I was 22, two years out of college, and living in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC. I worked for AT&T as a programmer on various billing systems. I hated northern Virginia, but I liked my co-workers and I liked my job. This was just a few years post-divestiture, back when AT&T was still the Death Star, barely hanging on to being The Phone Company, Dammit, and it was a pretty solid place to work. There were about thirty of us split into three groups in my area; demographically we skewed pretty young, with over half of us under age 30. Our group managers were good people; they left us alone and let us do our jobs, and I daresay, we did them pretty damn well. At least, that’s what other people told us.
That spring, for whatever reason, word came down from On High that everyone in our division—a good 500 people or so–would be required to attend team-building training over the next few months. The scuttlebutt floating around the office was that someone from far, far up in the Death Star had decreed this training, and flung a couple hundred thousand dollars at a bunch of “team-building consultants” to make it happen. As you’d expect, we collectively grumbled that they could’ve just taken that money and flung it at us instead to build our team spirit, but, hey, that’s not how Corporate America works, is it?
When our turn came up, the announcement we got caused more than a few raised eyebrows. We were told that we were to pack for an overnight stay at the Airlie Conference Center, about an hour’s drive down the road near Warrenton, VA. We were going to be out there all day Thursday, stay Thursday night, and most of the day on Friday. And there were no exceptions allowed. Single mom? Tough cookies, find a place to dump the rugrat(s). Going out of town? Sucks to be you, reschedule. Think it’s all a bunch of happy horseshit? No sweat, I hear MCI’s hiring, have a nice life.
And so, early one Thursday morning, one of my housemates (who also worked in the same programming group I did) and I piled into my car and headed out of the DC sprawl, down toward Airlie. It’s a lovely place, Airlie is, a conference center built on the grounds of an old farm, complete with what looked at the time like a neat old motel of three stories, surrounding a central courtyard with a swimming pool, which at the time was empty and being sandblasted. We were given rooms, told to throw our luggage in, and then herded off to the morning “team-building classroom sessions.”
These sessions were, not to put too fine a point on it, the biggest load of bovine excrement I’d ever seen this side of, well, any State of the Union address. They talked about team dynamics and communication and problem solving and shared space and how to empower the members of our team to unleash their full potential…and the whole time, all thirty of us are giving each other furtive “they spent 200 grand on this?” looks. We were already three of the best-performing teams in the entire division. Why were we sitting there listening to the two instructors breathlessly gasp their way through this elementary-school “don’t be a douchebag” stuff like it was written on stone tablets and carried down the side of Mount Sinai by Charlton Fucking Heston?
And then, just when a few of us were looking for sharp objects to take to our wrists to make the agony stop, they fed us lunch. A good lunch, but the lead instructor told us in her godawfully annoying chirpy manner, “Don’t eat too much, you don’t want to be too full for this afternoon!”
Sadly, she was right. The afternoon comprised the “outdoor team-building session.”
Now, before I go further, let me give you a little background. I’m a fatass. I’ve always been a fatass. On this lovely warm spring day in 1989, I looked much like I do now 22 years later, except I had more hair and my fat was slightly higher on my body. I weighed about, eh, 285 or 290 pounds, and very little of it was muscle except what I used to talk and chew. I’ve never been accused of missing many meals in my life, let’s just say that.
So there we were, 30 or so of us, standing on the lawn. We were told that we would be doing a number of “fun and exciting” team-building activities designed to engender trust and problem-solving behaviors. Also, they were going to videotape us while we were engendering trust and problem-solving behaviors. I think that’s called “engendering hatred of the intern with the video camera.”
First, they had us sit in a circle on the ground, facing outward. We were then told to link elbows with the people next to us and stand up. In theory, this is supposed to be pretty easy if you’ve got somebody on either side of you to brace against. “Theory” never ran across a 290-pound lardbutt paired with two women half my size on either side of me. Everybody else around the circle popped up like jack-in-the-boxes. Meanwhile, I sat there grunting and struggling and dislocating these poor womens’ shoulders and eventually falling flat on my ass, taking half the circle with me. I’m pretty sure Miss Chirpy’s perma-smile faltered a little bit at that point, but she recovered quickly. Camera Intern, of course, never missed a moment of it.
We were then split into three groups and herded off into the woods to face our “fun and exciting” torture—uh, team-building. My particular group was led down to a tree with a stepladder nailed to the base…yes, kids, that’s right, it was time for that team-building moldy oldie, the Trust Fall.
I felt my co-workers’ eyes boring into me as they thought as one, “oh sweet jumping Jesus on a pogo stick, we’ve got to catch him?!?”
Well, as it turns out, there’s a trick to it. The catchers formed two rows and grabbed each others’ arms up above the wrist to make a fairly solid base. The catchee was informed that they had to stay absolutely rigid during the fall backward, arms folded across the chest. The slightest bend at the waist would put too much weight in one spot and probably break somebody’s arm. No pressure.
Amazingly enough, I got up to the fourth step on the ladder, balanced on my tiptoes (because that’s all the room there was on the fucking step), and in one motion, stiffened my back, crossed my arms, and fell backward into the waiting arms of my terrified co-workers, who probably thought I looked like a toppling redwood ready to crush them. And the techniques worked. They caught me!
And then promptly dropped me on my right hip on top of a tree stump. Dear God, that hurt like a bastard.
After everybody had a chance to play Will My Co-Workers Let Me Break My Neck, we were herded off to the next event. We found ourselves standing in front of a crazy jumble of ropes strung between two trees about 15 feet apart. This, we were informed, was the web of a huge spider (oooooooh). We all had to get through the web without touching any of the strands, or else we would be eaten (oooooooh). Oh, and each opening between the jumble of ropes could only be used once (oooh…wait, what?). Obviously, this was designed so that we had to ask the spider for 10 or 15 minutes to work out who could fit through which hole. I asked the “facilitator” if I could just nobly sacrifice myself to the spider so the rest of the group could get through while I was being eaten. When she said no, then I asked if I had a sword or shield with me to defend myself from the spider and hold it off while the rest of the group got through. She didn’t see the humor in it. Clearly, she hadn’t played as much D&D as I had.
Honestly, I don’t even remember how the hell I got through that. I’m sure that somehow I was pushed, pulled, prodded, or poked through it, ever under the watchful eye of Camera Intern, who always seemed to be there when one of us did something of a dumbass nature. Which was often.
Miss Chirpy then announced that we were all to form up in a human chain, holding each other’s hands…after all but one of us were blindfolded. The one who was not blindfolded led the chain. We were to head off through the woods, holding hands, led by one of our senior analysts who just happened to be at the front of the group.
Woods, at least the woods I’m familiar with, are not flat. They are not regular. They have things like tree roots to trip you and ruts to step in. None of us were wearing hiking boots—we were all told “dress casually” so we were in jeans and T-shirts or polos, except for a couple of the older grizzled programmer types for whom “casual dress” meant “opening their sleeves and taking out the pocket protector.” Sneakers—or in the grizzled ones’ case, wingtips—weren’t exactly made for overland hiking.
But off we went. Slowly. Verrrry slowly. We stumbled. We tripped. We fell. Well, I fell, because if anybody was going to fall down on that trip, it was the fat guy with the high center of gravity and the lousy sense of balance. Eventually, after somewhere between five minutes and three lifetimes, we were told to stop.
Miss Chirpy informed us that we were in a sinking capsized ship and the room was full of smoke (hence the blindfolds). We were told that there was a porthole above us that we would have to use to escape before the ship sank. Like everybody else, I cheated by peeking around my blindfold, and I saw a large truck tire suspended seven feet off the ground between two trees. That, apparently, was our “porthole.” We were not allowed to remove our blindfolds until our heads were through the “porthole,” signifying we were out in the fresh air and could see again.
At this point, since it appeared we were re-creating The Poseidon Adventure, I wondered if I could just go Gene Hackman and fall into a pool of water covered by flaming oil to end this misery. No such luck. My destiny, it seemed, lay seven feet in the air and on the other side of a truck tire.
I was in the middle of the group sent through; the theory being there were enough people on one side to push my immensitude up and enough on the other side to catch me. The concept was a good one, but the execution was a bit…flawed, shall we say.
Up I went, hanging onto this swaying tire with all my limited might as people pushed from underneath. Idly, I wondered how many ship portholes actually fucking swayed as I started trying to wiggle myself through the bloody thing. I managed to get myself high-centered in the tire, slowly wiggling and pushing myself through like the tire was giving birth to me (“Congratulations, Mrs. Michelin! It’s a fat nerd!”). I was making progress. I couldn’t breathe, I was covered in sweat, and I looked like a goddamn idiot, but I was making progress.
Then I ran into a problem. See, they had duct-taped across the inside of the tire in an attempt to smooth the edges. But the duct tape had sagged. And as I pushed enough of my bulk through to reach a sort of tipping point, I felt the top of my jeans and belt catch on the inside edge of the tire.
I pivoted, not voluntarily. My loyal co-workers on the other side got the hell out of the way as I came crashing down on my head and hands from seven feet in the air…with my pants pulled down around my thighs. I had a tiny cut on my hand but was otherwise OK.
Then I looked up and saw Camera Intern. As I pulled my pants back up and tried to salvage any dignity I could find, I jokingly said to him, “you’d better not do anything with that footage, hoss.”
Instead of seeing the joke, the college boy glared at me and growled, “I’d like to see you try, man.” Oooooookay then. Surly Camera Intern is surly. Right, moving on.
After the Goodyear Porthole of Depantsing, all three sub-groups were merged back together in front of our final objective…The Wall. The Wall was just what it says on the tin; it was a wall, about twelve feet high. There were no handholds, no ropes. There was a small catwalk over on the far side a couple feet down from the top. The objective, Miss Chirpy explained, was simple: Everybody goes over the wall. Everybody (except the woman with her shoulder in a sling from recent surgery, who was finally exempted from something). People can stand on the catwalk to help, but no more than four at a time.
I stood before The Wall in utter shock and humiliation as some of our fitter men began going over it first. I knew that somewhere in the middle of the bunch of us, they were going to have to get my fat ass over that thing, somehow, someway. It was going to take everybody pushing to do it. I was exhausted, I was sore, I was bruised, and I wanted to be anywhere else but here—say, the projects in Anacostia at about 2:30 in the morning, alone. This was the cherry on top of the shit sandwich of a day. If I’d wanted to climb walls and crawl through tires, I’d have joined the goddamned Army.
It took about five minutes to get me over the wall, and don’t ask me how they did it because I don’t remember. It was a blur of people pushing me from underneath and dragging me from up top, of grunts and shouts of encouragement, of me praying “dear God don’t let me break anybody’s arm,” of Miss Chirpy’s smug “damn but I love my job because I get to watch these fucks make idiots of themselves” smile as she watched me struggle, and, of course, of Camera Intern filming the entire damn thing.
And then, there I was, pulling myself over the top of the wall onto the catwalk with the last reserves of my strength, hearing the cheers of my co-workers as I flopped down on my knees and tried to catch my breath. The moment actually felt pretty damn good, if I’m honest…I’d done it. I’d actually fucking done it! Well, really, we’d done it, it’s not like I could’ve done it myself. The tingle of the good vibes lasted about three seconds until I heard Miss Chirpy yell “only four people on the catwalk, let’s go!” Right, well, thanks for pissing in my celebratory Wheaties, chick. I dragged myself to the ladder and climbed down, then stood there getting my bearings back as the rest of the group got over The Wall.
And that, mercifully, was the end of the afternoon session. We were led back to the conference center, tired, bruised, battered, but ultimately, successful at…not killing any of the team-building staff, I guess. We were allowed to head to our assigned hotel rooms for a quick change of clothes (not even enough time for a shower, the bastards) before heading to the dining room for dinner.
Dinner, however, held its own surprise. The food was good, but before we were allowed to eat, Miss Chirpy got up at the front of the room and announced that there would be special entertainment along with dinner. She stood back to reveal…a projection TV screen. (If you don’t know what a projection TV is, ask your parents.)
You guessed it. Camera Intern hadn’t been filming all that stuff for his own private collection of programmer humiliation bondage pr0nz. In the short interval we’d been getting ready, the staff had gone through the footage and culled out the most humiliating bits. Which were then replayed during dinner. On a loop.
I featured rather prominently.
There I was, unable to stand up in the circle. There I was, landing on the stump after the Trust Fall. There I was, falling out of the tire and crashing to the ground on my head with my Hanes proudly on display. (Hey, at least they didn’t have any skid marks on them.) There I was, getting hauled over The Wall like a giant flabby flailing sack of fail to the cheers of my fellow workers.
Was I humiliated? Oh God yes. I wanted the world to open up and swallow me. But mercifully, I did work with a very wonderful group of people. Nobody gave me too much shit over it. We were able to bond and sympathize with each other as our embarrassing moments came and went on the screen. It was probably the only serious episode of team-building that we’d had the entire horrible day.
You’d probably think that was the end of it. That we all went off, stumbled to our rooms, and fell into an exhausted but highly team-built sleep.
You’d be dead wrong.
You see, the organizers, after dinner, made a critical mistake. They didn’t occupy us with any more team-building nonsense, probably because they correctly interpreted that we’d kill them if they tried. They made an even worse error. A catastrophic error. An error for the ages.
They brought in two large coolers…
…full of ice-cold beer.
Remember that I mentioned that over half our group was under 30? And that most of us were male? And we’d just had two big coolers full of beer dumped in front of us.
We dove into the beer coolers like starving men on a Ruth’s Chris steak. In what seemed like the blink of an eye, first one cooler, then the second, was empty. The staffers quickly carried the coolers away.
And brought them back with more beer.
I honestly don’t know why they thought it was a good idea to keep throwing beer at a bunch of twenty-somethings who were spending a night away from home. I’d say they were being decent and trying to make up for putting us through four hours of sheer hell in the afternoon, but that would require Miss Chirpy and her crew to not be management consultants blinded by their own bullshit, and that wasn’t happening. Maybe they figured we were so tired that a beer or two would knock us right out…well, that didn’t work, because the heavy drinkers in the group (my housemate included) were young, fit, and had a tremendous capacity to ingest alcohol.
In the end, the whys and wherefores didn’t matter. All that mattered is that we cleaned both coolers out again in record time. At that point, the conference center staff informed us that that was all the beer they had.
Was that going to stop us? Hell no. We were problem-solvers, dammit. We were a built team, weren’t we? We’d scaled The Wall! We weren’t going to let a little thing like being four miles from town stop us from getting more beer!
Someone who was relatively sober, God bless ’em, volunteered to make a beer run. And faster than you could say “where’s the nearest 7-11?”, they were back with a couple more cases of beer. The beer was consumed, again in record time, but this time, there really was no more. It was getting late, and those who were not drunk were getting tired. Actually, by that point, I was getting drunk, and I was tired.
So off I staggered to my room, leaving the hardcore five or six left partying to their plotting if they could find someone sober to hit yet another 7-11 for more brew. I stumbled up to the third floor of the hotel, went to my room, and crashed hard.
Maybe you’d think that is the end of the story. Not even.
The next morning came way too soon. I woke up feeling like I’d been through a war. It wasn’t that I had a particularly bad hangover, though my head was pounding pretty good. It was the combination of the hangover and the bruises and the sore muscles. I felt like total, utter, complete shit. I also noticed, with some surprise, that my housemate, who was supposed to be in the other bed, had never come in. His bag was still on the bed and the covers hadn’t been touched. That was odd.
I staggered to the bathroom, drank as much water as I thought I could stand, slammed some ibuprofen that I’d thoughtfully brought, and took a shower. By the time I was ready to head to breakfast, at least I looked human even if I didn’t feel it.
I packed my bags up and opened the door to the third-floor catwalk…and stopped.
The catwalk was covered in…snow? No, wait, couldn’t be snow, it was warm. It was some kind of white powder, all over the concrete in front of my room and the one next to me. My addled, hungover brain couldn’t make any sense of it. For a second, I thought maybe a wind had kicked up and blown the powder covering the bottom of the empty swimming pool up onto the third floor. But it was too thick and too localized.
I wandered over to the room next door, where two other late-20s co-workers were staying. Their door was open. I wandered inside, tracking white powder everywhere.
The sight that greeted me was probably similar to something a hotel concierge might’ve seen in the early ’70s when The Who or The Rolling Stones were staying at their hotel on tour. One of the two double beds was sitting with one corner down on the floor, missing a leg; the other was just plain broken in the middle. One mattress was skewed on its bed, the other was stood up against a wall, and both of them were covered in white powder, as was the floor of the room and some of the furniture. Just then, one of the guys walked out of the bathroom, casually brushing his teeth and apparently none the worse for wear from the previous night. (I hate people with metabolisms like that.) “Hey dude!”, he greeted me. “Kinda, uh, got a little crazy in here last night.”
I looked in the bathroom behind him. The sink hung off the wall at an obviously abnormal angle, as if it had been partially broken loose.
He must’ve seen my gobsmacked look, because he chuckled nervously and said, “ah, yeah, y’know, we were kinda horsin’ around, doin’ a little, y’know, rasslin’. I dunno where the hell (my housemate) got off to.”
I knew that both of the guys billeted for that room, plus my housemate, were big-time pro wrestling fans. Also, all three of those guys were 200 pounds or more. Apparently, they’d decided to throw their own private cage match in the hotel room, and they’d trashed the ever-loving hell out of it. I imagine Keith Moon would’ve looked around at it, nodded, and said, “not ‘arf bad, mate.”
My housemate walked in about then, apparently also unaffected by a hangover, but unlike the first guy, he seemed to have figured out that Something Bad had happened. He had that puppy-just-peed-on-the-floor look about him. “You don’t think (our manager) is gonna be mad, do you?”, he asked me.
I looked at him like he’d grown a second head. “Um…man, this shit is broken. The sink? Two beds? Yeah, she might be a little pissed when she gets the bill. And what’s this crap on the floor and outside?”
“Fire extinguisher stuff.”
“Fire extinguisher stuff.”
“Two I think. Maybe three.”
“Yeah. At least the pool wasn’t full.”
“We kinda pitched the mattresses off the balcony and that’s where they landed.”
“In the pool.”
“Yeah. In the pool.”
“Three stories down.”
What else could I say? I thought about saying something sympathetic, something like, “Well, man, if you get your ass fired over this, we’re gonna have to throw you out because we can’t afford to split the rent three ways, sorry.” Instead, I think I just walked back outside.
The best part? I slept through that. Two broken beds, two discharged fire extinguishers, flinging things off the balcony, even smashing a sink half off a wall, in the room next door to me, and I fucking slept through it.
Needless to say, things got just a little bit awkward when we got downstairs to breakfast. Our manager beckoned my housemate over, with a look on her face that indicated not only had she heard what happened, she knew who’d done it, and Impending Doom Was Impending.
My housemate and the two other guys weren’t in the room when we started the second “morning team-building session,” along with one other guy who’d been partaking of the brew rather extensively the night before. Yes, that’s right, folks, after trying to kill us on Thursday, they put us through yet another three hours of Buzzword Bullshit Bingo on Friday. I don’t remember a word that was said, my pounding head drowned it out rather effectively.
Two moments do stand out, however. The first was when the three room-trashers came back in, looking suitably sheepish. They sat down, looking for all the world like our manager (a stern, matronly black woman who could seriously lay the smack down when she wanted to) had given them the lecture of their lifetimes. That still, though, left us one person short.
That problem solved itself fifteen minutes later, about 10 in the morning, when he stumbled into the room, clearly hung over. He staggered across to a chair, paying no heed to the daggers Miss Chirpy was looking at him, flopped down into it, reached into his pocket, pulled out a pair of sunglasses, and put them on.
Ten minutes later, we heard snoring.
If that doesn’t sum “team-building” up, nothing will.
Amazingly enough, none of the miscreants (including my housemate) were fired. They did have to make arrangements to pay back almost $2,000 in damage to the room, but they kept their jobs.
We were told that all later groups that went to Airlie for team-building were not served any alcohol after their Dinner of Humiliation.
The rest of the department never forgave us for ruining it for the rest of them.