Getting scared isn’t fun, but it helps in an office

| March 6, 2013 | 0 Comments


When a 57-year-old man falls to his death from a high wire at an adventure playground, questions spring to mind about our collective madness.

There may be questions too about Tree Adventures, the Auckland company advertising fun for people “really looking to push their boundaries” and team building, but I can’t comment on those.

What I can do is comment on the pervasive, mad idea that scaring people half to death (a) is good for them, (b) is fun and (c) will help them get along much better in life and the workplace. Tell you what, try running through rush-hour traffic.

First reports said the man was on a team-building exercise when he plunged 14 metres to his death. A later report said he was on the course with friends.

My hunch is that the average 57-year-old man would not think of the high wire as an ideal way to pass a scary hour, but it is unfashionable to be over 40, still less over 50, and pretty well compulsory to act as if you’re an eternal 30 regardless, which explains a lot.

At 57 you’re not going to be as fit as a gung-ho 20-year-old, still less are you likely to need to perform high-wire stunts in real life if you haven’t needed to by now. But we jog and diet and work out in gyms because we will never grow old, just mysteriously become wrinkled.

The man made a choice about the risk he took, but I wonder what it’s like being an older person in a competitive workplace, where team building, with its scary rituals, is compulsory.

Some popular group exercises sound like bullying to me, but as with the intrusive tests people have to complete before they’re hired, you can’t protest or you’ll lose your chance of work in a shrinking job market.

Psychometric testing provides “assessment tools” in order to “enable a proactive work environment” (I’m quoting from one outfit’s guff online).

In other words, employers no longer rely on face-to-face interviews, references and resumes. They want the equivalent of a full-on astrological chart as backup, to make sure you’ll get on with the Geminis in the front office.

I object to the idea that it’s OK to screen another person’s nature in depth when all you want from them is work that will require a tenth of their intellectual capacity, and is only work after all, not life itself.

Something more paradoxical is happening in schools.

We’ve come to believe that playgrounds are dangerous places, where children can graze their knees or fall on asphalt, like they always did.

That level of risk is too disturbing, we decided. Instead, kids would be taken on expensive school expeditions to adventure parks to do safe things such as cross rivers on high, wobbly rope bridges, and fool around on flying foxes.

When does team building – at work or at school – become team bullying? Why do we overlook the regular accidents and occasional deaths that result from it?

And what about the group of Dunedin schoolgirls who nearly got carried off in a rip while swimming at the beach? It was sheer luck that competent rescuers were immediately at hand.

The high point of this idea – that being scared is great stuff – is the army. Maybe they don’t go in for astrology or psychometrics there, because Corporal Douglas Hughes, who killed himself in Afghanistan, seems to have been basically too sensitive for the job.

The fact that he was gay has been an attention-grabber, and bullying has been claimed, but in all honesty, what would you expect from the armed forces? You’d be bullied over any point of difference – being short or having red hair would work too.

Bullying is an integral part of traditional male hardening-up, even bonding, which boys’ boarding schools and the army have known forever. It’s how their star pupils ease so well into war, the law and business. There’s nothing left to fear if you survive the dormitory. The skills you learn on that survival circuit will – possibly quite nastily – set you up for life.

– © Fairfax NZ News

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