The more forced and structured your ‘team building’ effort, the less effective it will be.

• Company picnics.
• Secret Santas.
• A Day at the Ballpark.
• A Night at the Races.
• Company Field Day.
• The (insert charity’s name here) Annual Fund Drive.

These and countless other initiatives of their ilk are sponsored by companies every year. Rationalizing their suggestions with statements like, “It’d be nice for the company to do something” (a) “…as a family,” or (b) “…just for the fun of it,” or (c) “…for the greater good,” such events are usually proposed and organized by employees or managers with only the best intentions. That’s right: The same stuff they used when paving the road to Hell.

It’s been a while since I “got my rant on,” but this topic is just too good to pass up. So, touchy-feely owners, former scholastic sports team captains who now find themselves in management positions, and one-time drill sergeants who pretend employee participation in company–sponsored charity initiatives is really optional, take note:

The people on your payroll (a) don’t WANT a second family. Their primary one probably offers all the dysfunction they can stand; (b) don’t consider attending a baseball game with their co-workers “fun.” In fact, crazy as it may sound, many go to baseball games in celebration of the fact that they are NOT at work; and (c) certainly don’t appreciate any sort of coercion, however subtle or innocuous YOU may think you’ve made it, to pony up part of their hard-earned money on behalf of a charity of your choosing.

Under the general heading of “Team Building,” these sorts of activities flourish at companies everywhere, aided and abetted by workers who have become bored with their actual jobs and have decided to make the work atmosphere the main focus of everyone else’s lives.

To them I say: If you want to feel like you’re at work all the time, that’s your business. Just don’t force the same neurosis on the rest of us. Believe it or not, some people work for one reason above all others: They have no choice. And no amount of company-sponsored distraction – what I call “Mandatory Fun” – is going to help them paint a happy face on that reality.

The same people DO, however, appreciate knowing their skill and expertise is having a positive impact – whether by making the company more profitable, making customers happier or earning a wage that rewards them proportionally to their efforts. Most would prefer to succeed in ALL of these areas.

But really, where’s the harm in a little Mandatory Fun? How can a company activity or two actually make people feel less enthusiastic about their workplace, rather than more so?

The answer is one that’s easy for victims to see, and next to impossible for perpetrators of “team-building” programs to accept. But I’ll try to explain it.

Let’s return for a moment to the premise that most people work because they have to. That’s not saying they don’t also LIKE their jobs. Maybe they do, maybe they don’t. Regardless, having not yet hit the lottery nor been named the sole beneficiary of their long-lost Uncle Ernul’s paper clip empire, they work because they need the money. They work long.They work hard. And then, along comes their manager.

“We’re having a company picnic on Saturday the 15th. There will be lots of food and entertainment and games for the kids. There’s no pressure to attend, but all employees and their families are invited. Just a little something we try to do every year to show our appreciation for your efforts.”

At first blush, this seems like a very nice thing. More than likely, the company is offering it with the best intentions. If the event also happens to promote a feeling of unity among employees, giving them shared experiences that they’ll value in years to come, so much the better.

But let’s break it down from the employee’s viewpoint.

“We’re having a company picnic on Saturday the 15th.” (“Great, same day as my monthly poker game.”)
“There will be lots of food and entertainment and games for the kids.” (“Will there be poker?”)
“There’s no pressure to attend, but all employees and their families are invited.” (“Because you’re an employee”?? That sounds like pressure to me!)
“Just a little something we try to do every year to show our appreciation for your efforts.” (“Have you considered giving me more money?”)

Listen closely. I’m going to let you in on a little secret: Regardless of the number of times you say attendance is optional and however sincere about that you may be, ALL EMPLOYEES FEEL PRESSURE TO ATTEND COMPANY-SPONSORED EVENTS. Period. We’re talking about people’s livelihoods here, Einstein. A certain degree of insecurity regarding one’s standing with their employer is just human nature, and no amount of disclaimers will convince most employees that failure to attend company functions will go unnoticed.

So they’ll show up, paint on a smile and partake of the Mandatory Fun.

This much I’ll allow: Teams are built based largely on shared experience. But not in a public park or a sports arena. A smooth-functioning work team results from shared experiences AT WORK. Struggling successfully to meet deadlines. Surpassing production goals. Improving product quality. These are the things that build strong teams. Imposing company activities on employees’ personal time is neither necessary nor smart.

If you really want to engender a sense of belonging in your workforce, stop by the bench of a particularly valuable employee and tell her just how valuable she is. If you’d like to reward an employee for his hard work by treating him to a home game of his favorite team, slip a pair of tickets into his pay envelope with a simple note: “Thanks for all your efforts. Enjoy.”

And if you’re serious about helping the local agencies that make the lives of the disadvantaged a little better, pay your employees enough that they can contribute to the charity they most value, if they so choose – not the one from which you want yet another plaque of appreciation to hang in the company lobby.

The best gifts any employer can give its people are the encouragement and ability to lead a balanced life. The most productive, creative and – surprise! – loyal employees are those who do not feel shackled to, or by, their employers.

Anthony Noel has written for the magazine since 1994. Send e-mail to anthonynoel@suddenlink.net. If your question is for “Ask Tony,” please put “Ask Tony” in the subject line. Even if your question is not used in the magazine, Tony will do his best to respond personally via e-mail.

Because CWB reaches the desks of company owners and managers, we gladly preserve questioners’ anonymity upon request.

‘Ask Tony’

‘Defending’ Your Prices

Hi Tony,

I was a Graphic Arts instructor for a number of years and have been retired for nine years, but have been turning for most of my life. Now that I’m retired, the turning business is just me and year-round. Most of my jobs come from word-of-mouth, restoration companies and store referrals. When I don’t have a custom job, I have a line of Christmas ornaments always waiting to be turned.

Often, someone needs a few spindles, so they investigate and find me. When they come in, they tell me what they want and say something like, “Now we don’t want to put much money into this” or, “We will let you do this as a learning experience.” Now maybe they don’t know I’ve done this for more than 50 years and have done some very fine duplicating for some special customers, including Disney World. I feel my price is very reasonable, which may be why I get a lot of repeat business.

Still, as a craftsman, I find these statements upsetting. Not that I’m going to bust anybody in the teeth, but if some time they had a broken tooth or two, they could probably find 50 dentists in town before the end of the day to fix them and they would gladly pay whatever the price. But when it comes to their spindles, they spend a week calling around before finding me and say things like the above.

How do I handle this type of situation politely and in a calm way, give them my price per inch estimate (which I stick to almost 100 percent of the time) and still feel like doing the job? Keep in mind that some of these people will say these things before I get a good look at the job.

— Ron Odegaard

Ron,

Your frustration is well-founded; everything you say is true.

People don’t appreciate the fine work we do because (1) they once made a spice rack in high school woodshop (“I could do it myself, I just don’t want to/don’t feel like it/don’t have the time”); (2) it’s just a small job, so the price should be proportional (i.e., small – if not free!); (3) “You’re taking advantage of me because you have expensive tools you have to pay for,” and (4) guys are doing this on TV shows all weekend long and it only takes them 10 seconds. (This last group doesn’t grasp the magic of television!)

All of this, of course, is nonsense. My best suggestion is this: Take some time to carefully document the process of turning ONE spindle. Be thorough. Have someone photograph each stage of the process and note the time expended at each stage. Then, put together a display.

Print out the pictures and mount them sequentially on poster-board, from preparing the stock to the finished product. In large letters, begin your display with the heading: “Why your spindle is a bargain.” Put a short caption under each photo (“Preparing stock,” “Marking up,” “Checking diameters,” etc.). After each caption, add “Elapsed Time” with the total time spent up to that point. Under the last photo, make it “Total Time spent” and “Your Price” (meaning the price you would charge the customer).

Put your display in a prominent place, where customers can’t miss it. If they do miss it (or pretend it’s not there!) walk them through it yourself and, as you wrap it up, say, “I’m confident you won’t find better work at any price.” Then silence; don’t say another word.

If they “want to think about it,” thank them for coming in, give them a business card and get back to work.

If they try to bargain, say, “I’m sorry, but maybe you don’t understand. I’ve been doing this for 50 years. I know what it costs to do it, and I don’t negotiate price. If my price is not acceptable, I’m sorry, but I have plenty of work and I have to get back to it. Thanks for stopping by.”

If you’re getting people calling on the phone for pricing, don’t waste your time or theirs: “I really need to see what you’re asking me to duplicate before I can give you pricing. Why don’t you stop by and we’ll go from there?”

I hope this is helpful, Ron. Thanks for writing!

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