Corporate Culture, Creativity, and Rule-Bending: How Team Building Can Be a Revealing Exercise

As we’ve mentioned in previous posts, team building activities can be an excellent forum for practicing group behaviors and establishing group norms. The activity itself can act as a sort of microcosm in which behaviors can be viewed in full relief and addressed accordingly.

One interesting phenomenon that crops up from time to time, are groups that seem to have a loose relationship with the rules. While a little rule bending now and then might not be cause for concern, amidst the rash of recent – and very public – ethical failings in companies such as Uber, VW, and Zenefits, it warrants a bit of introspection on the issue.

Rule bending and creativity go hand-in-hand. Dan Ariely, esteemed professor of behavioral economics at Duke University and author of a number of great books, explores this in his book The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty and in the related – and fantastic – documentary (Dis)Honesty: The Truth About Lies (which you can find on Netflix). Basically, his research shows a correlation between creativity and dishonesty. As he said in an interview with Scientific American, “if you’re creative, you find more ways to cheat and still tell yourself a story about why this is okay.”

Now, this post isn’t to knock creativity, obviously, as it is the engine that drives the most innovative companies in the world and most definitely a strength for many people. It does, however, introduce an interesting talking point with regard to creating a deliberate corporate culture with a moral and ethical backbone.

Now let’s circle back to team building activities. And to get things straight, let’s just establish that we work with tons of great people with the best of intentions at heart. Occasionally, though, we will notice creative rule bending, if not outright rule-breaking. For instance, in one of our activities called precious cargo, teams have to move a container full of balls via a network of ropes without crossing a set boundary outlined on the floor. The goal is to complete this in as fast a time as possible. Teams are told there is a one-second penalty for crossing any boundaries. Sometimes teams will purposefully cross the boundary lines in an effort to expedite the process, feeling the penalty will be made up for by the rapid completion time. Furthermore, this can sometimes prompt another team to follow suit, feeling justified by the actions of the other team. The thing is, this rule was established to prevent cheating, not as a loophole to encourage it.

It’s very easy for rule-bending to turn into a cultural norm. Uber has come under fire numerous times for its actions which skirt rules and regulations – ie, writing spy software to monitor it’s competitor Lyft’s app downloads on iPhones, hailing Lyft drivers and then canceling the rides (costing Lyft big money), and it’s other software, Greyball, which helped it avoid authorities in locales where it experienced pushback. These are all very creative actions, but they also set a very dangerous precedent, and have the potential to derail the juggernaut from achieving the success it ultimately wants by so wantonly embracing legal grey-areas. Or rather, being “creative” about the rules.

So while team building exercises may seem inconsequential, it can be eye-opening to witness teams stretching the rules and, hopefully for some teams, prompt introspection about the workplace and company culture. Do the group’s creative solutions to problems sometimes slip into the area of questionable ethics? How do you balance these two forces?

Another interesting phenomenon we’ve witnessed is a lack of self-reporting. In one of our other exercises, the web, in which teams must pass participants through different holes in a netted “web” without touching any of the webbing, a facilitator often can’t see whether or not a participant touched. Sometimes a team member who witnesses a touch and mentions this to his team is questioned or admonished. This can be an interesting metric for how reporting on ethical violations is handled within an organization. Are people who bring up potential transgressions treated negatively? Are people encouraged to keep their mouths shut and go with the flow? How is dissent treated within the organization?

Sometimes our facilitators are asked to weigh in on what has transpired, and often they’ll remind participants that whether or not a foul took place is really up to them to decide. A philosophical question about this might be, do you only follow the rules if someone is looking? Do you need a third party to tell you whether or not what you’re doing is right? These reflective types of questions are also something we bring up during debriefs after our activities, and they can be some of the most insightful parts of the day. It’s important to remember that corporate culture and ethical standards are something that work best when created with intention. What type of organization do you aspire to be? Can you be creative within ethical guidelines? This can be a great start to a profound conversation.

Doug Ramsay

Doug handles the marketing and web presence for Adventure Associates. If he's not geeking-out with the latest, greatest web marketing tools, then you'll find him swirling and sipping his way through wine country.

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