The Bonding Trick for Team Building

Work excursions are going far beyond ropes courses. Can you keep up to get ahead?

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Not long ago, an investment firm in Southern California sent a small group of employees on a team-building expedition. This wasn't a typical outing-a hike in the mountains or a ropes course. Instead, the group visited a swanky speedway where they piloted Porsches, complete with a personal coach to help them expertly handle the curves of the track.

While some companies still choose scavenger hunts or charades to help coworkers bond, an increasing number of employers are sending professionals on more over-the-top excursions. With a healthy economy and a tight labor market, "companies are trying hard to retain their talent," says Susan Sexton, who heads Blend Custom Parfum Studio in Atlanta, which runs perfume-making sessions for corporate teams.

The whole purpose of team excursions is to make sure you know each other and understand the work of the team.

Indeed, a trip outside the office to partake in unusual activities can give companies a competitive edge. One study found that close work friendships boost employee satisfaction by 50% and can help people be more fully engaged at work. To that end, the Kimpton Gray Hotel in Chicago recently introduced a "Caviar 101" class for corporate teams to learn about four varieties of the discerning delicacy, with an option to include sommelier-paired fine wines and champagne.

Of course, the more outlandish the activity, the higher the risk of making some colleagues feel alienated. Not everyone has a desire to race a Ferrari, and eating caviar could leave you wanting to gag if you aren't a fish lover. And it's good to remember the whole purpose of team excursions in the first place: to make sure you know each other and understand the work of the team versus the work of an individual, says Katie Lemaire, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry's Boston office. Here's how to handle the new ways of team building today.

Volunteer for the planning committee.

If your department happens to be asking for collegial input, raise your hand. Not only will it help you look like a team player, it also will give you some control over the activities that are planned-which could help steer the committee away from outings involving heights or a round of golf if you're slightly acrophobic or have subpar putting skills.

Acknowledge your limits.

Even if you can't help plan something, it's important to be upfront about what you may not want to partake in. Practice what you may say-"I'm not a bungee-jumping kind of person"-or find a way to pull aside the team captain or coordinator to explain in a casual way (without too much personal detail) that you don't want to scale the climbing wall. "No one wants to hear about the traumatic thing that happened to you when you were five," says Laura Killick, a career coach in Jersey City, New Jersey.

Capitalize on unexpected moments.

Seeing colleagues and bosses in different environments can give you opportunities to learn more about their personalities and preferences. If you're wanting to make partner at a law firm and haven't had a chance to get to know a particular executive outside of your realm, a company-wide retreat can offer the chance to do so. On a recent ski trip for one marketing firm, a young analyst was able to hit the slopes with a senior partner in another division, allowing him to learn more about another department-and get his name out there across divisions.

Beware of the casual vibe.

Similar to holiday parties, where someone almost always goes a little too hard on the booze, company retreats lend themselves to the same situation: nerves mixed with awkwardness in an unusual and casual context. That's why it's important to remember there's a time and a place to let off steam, and it isn't at your company's team-building dinner.

The same goes for your conversations; even though you've set your sights on chatting with influential people, you don't want to smother them or take up all the airways, and be viewed as a brownnoser or blowhard.

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