If there’s one certainty about working in an organisation with a reasonable budget, it’s that at some point, inevitably, someone will decide we’re just not working together effectively as a team. Maybe we don’t talk to each other enough, so information isn’t getting to people who need it. Maybe we’re not helping one another cover deadlines, so things are being missed. Maybe the attitude in the office is toxic and back-biting, with liberal helpings of aggression and defensive behaviour heaped out in steaming spades on innocent bystanders. It doesn’t matter what the cause. The solution is the always same. Clearly, we need to do team building!
So let’s talk about team building.
The traditional selling points of team building seem to be built around the following:
- People are inhibited in the workplace! They need a different environment to show their true selves and learn to shine.
- Destructive team and workplace habits are ingrained and reinforced by the working environment. The team needs to be shaken up to break those habits.
- People need to get to know each other on a personal level to develop the trust they need to work together.
- If people do something non work related together, it will show up their hidden strengths, which will build and improve the way they work together as a team.
- Everybody here loves each other really; we just need to be somewhere other than work to show it. (OK, this one I may be paraphrasing slightly. But the essentials are valid!)
I won’t comment (at this point) on the validity of those particular assumptions and views. But what tends to result is something like this:
- A team outing to an exciting new location
- Doing a community service type activity together
- Learning a new, non work related activity together
- A consultant is brought in to do “psychological” team building exercises
- Some element of “trust” in colleagues is at some point required
Which is all well and good from an able-bodied neurotypical perspective*. But let’s take a look at this from an autistic angle.
First, the exciting new location: how do I get there? Will I be able to drive? Can I get a lift – but then what if I have to leave early? I’ll be disoriented, I probably won’t be able to find my way around. Can I get a map or layout in advance? Where are the toilets? And the schedule will be different – can I get a copy of that? Will I know what to expect? When will I be able to find food? Will there be a quiet space? No? Whimpers quietly.
On community service: this is guaranteed to bring out the worst of all the above, and more. Simple activity? Think again. We need instructions – explicit instructions – and there’s 100% certainty here that we’re going to have to beg. No one can quite believe that a person would need guidance on how to do a litter pick – but believe me, if we’re asking, we do. And then there’s the endless hours of unstructured socialising in a work based hierarchy. It’s hard enough to develop our original “rules” on the differences between work and social interactions. Trying to apply “work social” rules out of context can be close to impossible.
How about learning or trying a new activity together – surely that’s OK? We’re breaking down the hierarchical structure, based around experience or expertise, to something where – in theory – we’re all starting from the same fresh slate.
Except that we’re not. Everyone “learns” at different rates. But I need quiet, isolation and the safety of a familiar environment in order to learn. I need to be prepared, to know basically what to expect. I can’t ask the right questions the first time around. Of course, giving me this information in advance wouldn’t be “fair” on everyone else. So this will be a day of quiet desperation, attempts to hide behind the rest of the team as I struggle to make sense of the simplest new concepts in an alien environment. Incredulous stares, pity and condescension as my “stupidity” is exposed. A day of being labelled and judged for things I can work around quite effectively whilst doing my job, yet stand out like blood blisters in isolation. That gutwrenching moment when I realise nothing will be the same after today. How will this impact my professional repuation? When will I be able to look my team in the eye again?
And the “trust-building exercises”, oh my! There are parts of me that I’ve learned to keep hidden. Things that make “normal” people uncomfortable; things that I’m rightly afraid of being judged for. Such exercises – based around the naive yet pervasive illusion that everyone shares the same basic comfortable “normality”, a common ground – are designed to draw these things out. Fear of humiliation and exposure are uppermost in my mind.
Lovers of team building, if you are working with anxious, autistic or otherwise “different” people, please consider the following:
- Team building is the ultimate in terror for a productive (or quietly struggling) Aspie.
- Unfamiliar places, new activities and disruption to routines are extremely difficult for us. We need to know things in advance that other people might not need, in order to cope.
- There is a massive risk of meltdown or shutdown in traditional team building environments.
- We don’t want our colleagues to see this! We’ve spent a lifetime building a professional demeanour, learning to deal with the unexpected as our job requires. We don’t want to damage that reputation.
- You don’t want our colleagues to see this – especially yourself. Trust me. It’s ugly.
Team building lovers, I beg of you, show some sensitivity. Don’t make us do this. Allow us to retain our dignity and professionalism. Find some other way of building team trust and cohesion. But not like this. Please, not like this.