The first known teambuilding exercise took place around 435 A.D. when Attila the Hun addressed his disjointed mob as they were planning a sacking and pillaging outing that would sweep across the Roman Empire. “All right, hordes, listen up,” Attila growled. “Before we begin our rampage, we’re going to get to know each other by making funny hats and then swapping them. Each barbarian must make up a personality to go with the hat. The plunderer with the most fanciful story gets a ‘Hun of the Month’ plaque for his horse.” Fun and hilarity ensued—until someone passed Attila a pair of donkey ears. The exercise immediately turned brutal and came to a rather swift, well, “conclusion.”

From Barbarian to Mainstream
After that inauspicious start, teambuilding has slowly ascended into the activity it is today, namely a chance for everyone to let their hair down, have some silly fun, and possibly end up rappelling down a chasm in a clown suit.

There are basically two types of teambuilding exercises: those that break down barriers by letting people don other personas, attitudes, and costumes, and those that involve harrowing physical feats where participants place their lives in the hands of their colleagues. And these could well be colleagues with whom they’ve had a conflict or two in the past or, even worse, stepped all over on their way up the corporate ladder.

It’s important, therefore, to know the makeup of the group when choosing an activity or you might find Madge from accounting left dangling on the high ropes until she swears never to hold up an expense report for lack of readable receipts. Note to self: If there are personality conflicts within the group, skip the firewalking and definitely no group hugs.

If strenuous and potentially life-threatening teambuilding doesn’t sound like the way to go and you choose a more lighthearted exercise, remember that participants usually fall into two categories: introverts and extroverts. The wallflowers must be coaxed into doing something that they wouldn’t consider even if they were alone in a darkened steel vault. At the mere mention of the gentlest game—say, Human Bingo or Save the Egg or Clothes Pin Tag—these people scatter like frightened gerbils and are usually found hiding behind curtains or large potted plants. With a little encouragement, these shy creatures might be guided to join the fun, although the team leader might have to jovially remind the truly obstinate that, “There is a much smaller team to build this year than last, and participation is heartily encouraged—if you get my drift.”

These folks are the polar opposites of the outgoing types who truly love costumes and role playing. Given even the slightest chance of performing for an audience, these American Idol wannabes will start belting out show tunes complete with choreography and jazz hands. Note to self: Corporate Rock Stars and Top Gun training work best here.

It’s the planner’s job to somehow include all the personality types in the exercise, with quiet coercion for the introverts and gentle reminders to the extroverts that they should save it for You Tube, where almost any behavior, reserved or unabashedly exhibitionist, can now be seen by most of the world in an instant. In fact, that might be the way to go the next time you’re tempted to recreate boisterous scenes from Hair,or worse, surreptitiously slip a pair of donkey ears on the CEO’s head.