Extreme Management

Los Angeles Times/November 20, 2001
By Roy Rivenburg

Some workers would walk over hot coals for their jobs. Or fly from a trapeze. In the name of teamwork, companies are asking employees to perform all sorts of odd feats.

Whoppers aren't the only things getting flame-broiled at Burger King these days. So are employees' feet. In Florida last month, a dozen people attending a motivational seminar suffered burns while strolling on a river of hot coals. They also marched across a bed of nails and smashed their hands against inch-thick boards.

No, Burger King hasn't opened a house of torture for its workers. The seminar was part of a small but growing trend in which corporations use offbeat gimmicks to boost morale and teamwork.

At Latitude Communications in Santa Clara, employees have dangled from a circus trapeze, ridden mechanical bulls and rushed into a flaming trailer wearing firefighter suits. Other team-building schemes on the market include rattlesnake roundups, race-car driving, grape stomps and a "sea rescue" in which toy helicopters airlift bikini-clad Barbie dolls from a shark-infested pool. (Apparently, nothing improves employee morale like saving Barbie from Jaws.)

Although the sluggish economy has prompted some corporations to ax such programs, others consider them more vital than ever. But some management experts remain skeptical. "There's no limit to the number of nutty things people will do as ways to help their companies get ahead," says Eileen Shapiro, author of "Fad Surfing in the Boardroom."

On a drizzly October night in Key Largo, Fla., "Ride of the Valkyries" boomed through loudspeakers as 125 Burger King staffers huddled under beach umbrellas trying to bend silver spoons with their hands. The tiki torches had flickered out, but an 8-foot-long bed of coals glowed eerily in the darkness, waiting for bare feet.

Cork Kallen, a Miami motivational speaker, led the session. Once the spoons were contorted, he hauled out a long wand of steel rebar and asked two volunteers to place opposite ends of it against their necks. Then he told them to walk toward each other.

As they did, the bar bent. The feat is "a jaw dropper," Kallen says, because it looks impossible. Ditto for walking on nails and breaking boards bare-handed. "It all sounds very mysterious and crazy," he concedes. "But it's designed to show people that they have more power than they thought ... that they can break through fears and limiting beliefs."

The grand finale is the fire walk, an ancient ritual that has been repackaged as a New Age system for personal growth. Dozens of "certified" instructors now peddle hot coal seminars, promising higher productivity and profits for corporate clients. "The fire walking sales team is truly an unstoppable force," boasts one brochure.

Uh, not exactly.

EMC, a data storage company, has sent 5,000 employees on coal strolls since 1995, at a reported cost of $625,000. "Fire walking helps [the staff] prepare for intimidating sales situations," explains EMC's February newsletter. "Overcome self-doubt, and everything is possible."

Well, maybe not every thing. Since February, the value of EMC stock has skidded from $80 a share to about $16.

From a scientific standpoint, bending rebar or walking on nails or coals is nothing extraordinary. "The longer the rebar is, the more flexible it is," says Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine. "Ask them to try it with a 6-inch piece of rebar and see what happens."

Likewise, a bed of nails is harmless if the nails are very close together. "It's about weight distribution, not mind over matter," he explains.

As for fire walking, it's similar to reaching inside a hot oven, he says. Although the air inside is just as hot as the metal oven rack, you won't get burned because air is a poor conductor of heat.

With a bed of hot coals, the wood transmits heat very slowly, so it's possible to trek across quickly without injury, Shermer says.

Fire walk instructors disagree. They claim thoughts can alter people's body chemistry and empower humans to withstand the 1,000-degree embers. Unless something weird happens.

In 1999, after nine National Guard recruiters scorched their feet at a motivational fire walk in Colorado, organizers blamed "bad wood" that was "a couple hundred degrees hotter than it was supposed to be," according to the Denver Post.

In another instance, a veteran instructor whose feet got toasted told reporters it was because the guy who chopped the wood was angry and the anger remained in the wood.

As for Burger King's unlucky coal-walkers, who suffered first-, second-and third-degree burns, "some people just have overly sensitive feet," says seminar leader Kallen. "If this was an event where you couldn't get a blister, it would have no meaning."

Still, Burger King execs were pleased with the outcome. "We're more of a team today than prior to the event," says company spokesman Rob Doughty, who was one of about 80 people to trudge across the coals. "It was very inspiring."

Bizarre methods for motivating employees are nothing new.

In the 1970s, corporations sent managers to the Esalen Institute, a New Age outpost near Big Sur, where activities included painting each other with shaving cream and soaking naked in hot tubs, says Edward Lawler, a USC business professor.

In the 1980s, "human potential" seminars such as Lifespring, Psi World and the Forum (a predecessor to the Landmark Forum) were the rage, although some employees filed lawsuits claiming the programs clashed with their religious beliefs. Fire walking also came into vogue at this time, thanks mainly to New Age guru Tony Robbins.

More recently, companies have tried everything from winemaking to circus lessons.

"The metaphors of the circus apply to business," says Peggy Ford of the San Francisco School of Circus Arts. "Juggling things, trusting people you work with, balance, making quick decisions. It's all transferable."

To bring the metaphors to life, the school teaches people to walk a tightrope, juggle, bend into a human pretzel and climb a skinny ladder to swing from a trapeze with an acrobat named Sven. Clients include Genentech, Adobe Systems, the city of Pleasanton and Latitude Communications.

Latitude, a voice-and Web-conferencing company, is known for devising unusual team-building events. In recent years, it has transformed employees into amateur astronauts, firefighters and rodeo cowboys. For the last, employees baled hay, "branded" cattle with paint and rode a "bungee bull," a mechanical bull whose movements are controlled by bungee cords yanked by the rider's colleagues.

The company also rented out San Jose Arena and hired the U.S. Women's curling team to teach everyone the ice sport.

For its next trick, Latitude was going to train with Navy SEALS, but "we bagged that after Sept. 11," says Marlo DeLeon, corporate programs manager.

Fortunately, plenty of other wacky ideas are available:

Team beekeeping and honey gathering. This adventure is offered by of Pennsylvania. For companies that prefer something riskier, the firm also markets rattlesnake hunts, skydiving, bull-riding camps, paint-ball wars and "gator photo safaris." (Why lay off employees when you can have a dangerous reptile do the dirty work for you?)

Race-car driving. Pepsi, Goodyear and Hewlett-Packard are among the corporations that have visited the Mid-Ohio School, which leads clients through braking and slalom drills before turning them loose on a 21/2-mile course with hills and blind turns.

Make your own merlot. In Napa, employees can stomp grapes and blend their own wines as a team-building exercise.

Hostage negotiations. In this simulation, teams of employees negotiate with fictitious animal-rights activists who are holding hostages at a research laboratory. Other simulation games let employees investigate murders, run fictitious governments or search for Arizona's legendary Lost Dutchman gold mine (players wear cowboy hats and bandannas for added realism). The games are designed to teach decision-making, creativity, risk-taking and teamwork.

Barbie heroism. Using cranks and pulleys, four people guide a toy helicopter as it rescues a bevy of Barbies from deadly plastic sharks. This adventure is led by Total Rebound, a Benicia, Calif., company that also conducts a "Survivor"-style game on Angel Island and takes clients aboard the aircraft carrier Hornet to build and launch their own missiles.

The list of gimmicks is endless: cornfield mazes, rock music lyrics that teach "valuable learning lessons," sumo wrestling in inflatable body suits and listening to dead presidents.

"Did you know George Washington believed and practiced team-building and collaboration as a central part of his leadership style?" asks an advertisement for Carl Closs, a Pennsylvania-based management consultant who impersonates the Founding Father at corporate retreats.

Does any of this stuff work?

Definitely, says Peter Grazier of "You can take just about any activity and create a team-building experience around it, as long as it's properly discussed afterward."

Experiencing a concept firsthand in a game or other activity is much more effective than a classroom lecture, he adds: "People learn better when they're having fun."

Latitude Communications' DeLeon agrees. The daredevil lessons have "benefited us greatly," she says. As the economy stumbles, "a lot of companies are thinking about cutbacks, but this is one thing we wouldn't want to skimp on."

However, some observers remain skeptical. "There's really no evidence that any of these programs makes a difference," says USC's Lawler, who also directs the school's Center for Effective Organizations. Employee motivation depends more on "how well [staffers] are paid, how they're led and how their jobs are designed."

Author Shapiro says team-building exercises usually contain "a nub of truth," but the lessons don't always translate to a person's actual job. "The best teamwork training is to take a group and put them on a real problem and give them good feedback," she says. "By that process, you've built a team. It's not flashy, it's not expensive and it actually helps the company, which is probably why it's not too popular."

In contrast, physical stunts like walking on coals, whitewater rafting or rope-climbing can backfire, she warns. Employees who get scared or injured or lack the coordination to perform a task might get ostracized by their colleagues, she says.

Nevertheless, companies keep enrolling for such seminars.

"Why do people pay hundreds of dollars to do this?" asks Kallen, who charges $15,000 for his corporate fire walking seminars. "Because there's a lot of fear in the world and people are trying to get past their fear because it holds them back. We use these events as metaphors for how we conduct the rest of our lives."

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