Outward bound to failure

Commando-style management training courses are in vogue at the moment in Britain. But they leave most participants feeling tired, wet, cold and alienated

SBHD: Commando-style management training courses are in vogue at the moment in Britain. But they leave most participants feeling tired, wet, cold and alienated

Once again we have reason to be grateful for the science of psychology, which is dedicated to unearthing the self-evident.

Heaven knows how the researchers pick their topics, but Adrian Ibbetson, of Birmingham University’s psychology department, came up with the idea of observing business executives taking part in the assault courses and survival exercises that have become part of fashionable management training.

The origins of these curious practices are obscure but have something to do with the decline in Britain’s self-confidence as a manufacturing nation. With success in world markets no longer assured, business took on the aspect and terminology of warfare. Campaigns were waged, plans of attack drawn up, battles fought. Somewhere from this process emerged a school of literal-minded chief executives who felt that business had much to learn from the army and that there was something to be gained from treating managers as an officer class.

As with most business fads born of desperation, this one quickly caught on. The Brecon Beacons thundered to the tramp of para-booted accountants. Farmland ditches played watery host to parachuting brand managers. Sixties tower blocks bristled with abseiling company secretaries. And above every Highland ravine rope bridges bore a perilously-swinging cast of departmental heads.

Amid all the sweat and terror, there were indeed winners. They were the 40 or so companies set up to devise and provide adventure-based training courses. The theory is that physical challenge assists in individual and group development. While it is true that some dreadful shared experience – such as crawling in pitch dark along half a mile of underground piping in freezing muddy water – may produce what social scientists describe as bonding, its effects on business performance are uncertain.

Which brings us back to Ibbetson and his team, who observed more than 150 postgraduate students from Warwickshire Business School as they underwent a typical course in the Lake District. The participants were divided into teams and made to compete in a variety of outdoor challenges such as building a raft to cross a stream.

The aim was to encourage people to work together in a team and to relish a task achieved. But, as Ibbetson observed, such good intentions were undermined by the competitive element. The sponsors of the course, he said, wanted points to be scored by each team because they thought that represented the reality of the business world. They were mistaken.

“The research appears to suggest that the competitive element in many programmes is having a negative side-effect which more than offsets the benefits of increased motivation,” concluded the study.

In other words, teams that lost felt so bad about the experience that they went away harbouring deep resentment at their humiliation and nurturing homicidal fantasies about the winners. Subsequent harmony in the office is not enhanced when an apparently casual glance from a winning team member is known to conceal a vivid recollection of the losing team’s raft disintegrating in midstream, shedding its forlorn cargo of systems analysts and strategic planners into the icy waters.

There will of course be those who point out that in business, in life, and on an outward bound course there must be winners and losers, and that graceful acceptance of defeat is a lesson in itself. In the case of adventure training courses, however, that view is mistaken. To lose a game of football or cricket matters not a jot in the wider scheme of things. But to be compelled to take part in a physical challenge, plainly regarded as part of one’s management training, and to be seen by one’s colleagues to have failed, does not make for improved morale.

The people who sent the managers on the courses should have known that, but they probably acquired their executive skills as a result of falling off a rope ladder somewhere in Keswick and landing on their heads. They fail to see the essential difference between competition between institutions and within them.

One of the reasons for the Japanese success in business is that they go to great lengths to avoid causing others to lose face. We in the West often see it as a triumph if we cause someone else to lose face. The Japanese feel secure in the knowledge that they will not be embarrassed by their colleagues or their boss.

The British taste for assault courses and survival exercises is bound to reveal that when there is a river to be crossed with nothing more to hand than a couple of twigs and a piece of string, there is inside every competent manager a complete prat. We should be grateful to Mr Ibbetson for reminding us of that truth.

Anyone who doubts the fragility of self-esteem should refer to another psychologist, Mr Eric Stice of Arizona State University, who found that nearly seven out of ten women suffer feelings of depression, stress, guilt and shame when they see pictures of thin models.

Amazingly, the trauma strikes within three minutes of looking at magazines such as Cosmopolitan, though how Stice worked that one out we shall never know.

“You’ve been looking at that picture of Elle MacPherson for a minute now. How do you feel?”

“Okay, I guess.”

“Two minutes?”

“Oh my God, I feel depressed.”

“Three minutes?”

“Hell, I’m so ashamed, guilty, stressed out and suicidal.”

If Cosmo can have that effect, imagine what a picture of Sylvester Stallone does for those failed abseilers with MBAs.

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