It was my first day of work. First day as a fully qualified but on probation teacher. It had taken four and a half years with no holidays – we did our teaching practices in the holidays, and I had worked very hard to achieve not just a degree but a diploma in education too.

I was twenty three.

Day one of term one was a training day. Deep joy. Actually I had no idea why the teachers I had worked with were so disparaging about training days. Wasn’t it a good thing that we were getting additional development as part of our contracts?

I had woken feeling ill – a cold was coming and my head felt like cotton wool. At least I wasn’t teaching. By five past nine I found myself in the school hall of an institution I had not yet visited, and hoped not to again. There were over thirty of us, sitting in a huge circle. The woman in charge was saying something but I couldn’t hear her. Maybe I had a blocked ear? It often happened with a cold. I strained to work out what she was telling us, to no avail. And then others started speaking. First the man beside her who boomed out that he was called Jim and he like jam.

It seemed irrelevant to the proceedings but then the woman beside him said she was called Georgina and she liked gin. Beside her another woman announced that her name was Sheila and she liked sloe gin. William liked whiskey, Claire liked claret and Bernard liked biscuits. Clearly this appeared to be an ice breaking exercise and whilst my head pounded, and I struggled to clear my ear, the creeping death came ever near.

H, I thought. What begins with H?

Suddenly my mind was blank. What on earth did I like to eat or drink that began with H? As the next person and the next spoke their name and the thing they liked, the tension mounted and so did my heart rate. Forget eating and drinking, I told myself, just think of anything that begins with H.

Suddenly everyone was looking at me. The facilitator, on the other side of the huge circle was smiling. Everyone had their head turned to me.

From nowhere came my voice. It declared what my name was and then blurted out, “and I like hippopotamuses.”

Only the longest word I could find. And maybe not even the correct plural. Not even something that can be eaten…..but at least it began with H.

How to make a fool of yourself on your first day of work, I thought. There was a book I could write when they sacked me for lack of inventiveness.

That was thirty years ago, but it sprang vividly to mind when I read an article on the “Disadvantages of Team Building.” According to this article (link at bottom of this piece), team building is actually counter productive. Or rather the kinds of team building that involve everyone taking part in the boss’s favourite sport, which often alienates half of the team, is not helpful. Even simple ice breakers, such as the one with which I was initiated into my teaching career, can achieve the opposite of their intention.

Team building and ice breakers and other games at work are intended to bring people closer together, to foster a higher level of psychological safety, which is important to a team in the working environment. However the techniques used for the last 30 years have often done quite the opposite.

What does team building really need to achieve?

Pollack and Matous claim there is much more to it than just focusing on the task in hand. For a team to function well they have to trust each other. To trust each other they need to know each other. They need to talk regularly and be comfortable raising issues. Freedom of expression and space to make a mistake improves both team performance and the ability to innovate. The work they did using 36 questions to facilitate targeted self disclosure had outstanding results in terms of developing trust and closeness. Whilst they acknowledged that personal disclosures can be risky, and people needed to proceed at a pace with which they were individually comfortable, it would seem that sharing personal information in the workplace can lead to far better working relationships.

Perhaps my favourite job was the one where we did socialise as a team, as parts of the team, as pairs or threes from the team, and in all sorts of combinations. We learned a lot about each other, which helped us to understand an off day, or why one aspect of our work could be more challenging for one of us than the others. But that job was not the only job within which I have socialised. Most of my roles have involved a degree of social contact out of the working environment, but with different levels of expectation, and different rules of engagement. In that particular job there was no hierarchy in the pub. Once we left the office we were all members of the team, equal and autonomous. Nobody was mocked for not coming out, or for leaving early. Work talk was a part of but not the only focus of our communications. There was an egalitarian feel to it.

Other roles have been very different. The pub chosen, the fact we would eat, what we would eat, and drink, and what we would talk about were the unique preserve of the boss. There was no leaving until the boss left – rather like the Queen, one hears. Conversation was monitored and controlled and there was a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ way to be. Socialising was therefore an extension of work, as stressful if not more stressful than work, and was often for the benefit of the boss, not the team. It was a kind of teambuilding, only instead of sporting prowess, it was late night drinking prowess that was the measurement.

In healthcare, as work patterns change, and people see less of each other, and have to rush home for caring duties or for another person to leave for work, socialising might be less of a feature than it was when I first started working. I wonder what impact this loss of personal contact, sharing of stories and deep meaningful conversation – albeit over a glass of wine or a pint, is having on our working relationships. Not a good one, I would guess.

What then, can we do about this within our current working practices? I certainly find like minded people on Twitter and have benefitted from some useful sharing of views, experiences and ideas. But are we destined to only connect virtually from now on ? That would be a real shame, I think. I for one am willing to take a deep breath and share, if I feel it is appropriate, and to listen and question when I sense someone might want to talk. How can we really call ourselves teachers, doctors, nurses, helpers, if we don’t invest in the humanity we work amongst ?

Hello. I am H and I like hippopotamuses.