Here’s a secret: there’s no such thing as a team-building exercise.

Teams are not created in a single day. It takes consistent action, and the support of a company’s culture, to build cohesion. Therefore, there can be only team-reinforcement activities.

What it means to be a team

This observation occurred to me during LBA Ware’s most recent annual retreat. Every year, the company gets all employees together for retrospection and planning, culminating in a day-long gathering where we listen to speakers and perform various activities together.

The first event is a half-day, kicked off by taking a new company group photo. After that, we review the goals we set last year, list the highlights of the prior year, give awards to employees, and then set milestones for the upcoming year. This year was the first time we didn’t host the meeting at our building – we’d simply outgrown the conference room. 

But it’s the second day that I love, and that I think demonstrates the culture of LBA Ware the best. It’s the day we shut down the company and travel to a local campsite.

Yes, our CEO believes this event important enough to shut down the company so that all may participate.

The topics and types of speakers of the retreat change from year to year. One year we heard from a founder of a startup similar to ours who had experienced some of the same issues that we were facing.  We’ve heard from sports coaches, concert-level pianists and local luminaries. We’ve absorbed and digested how their diverse experiences relate to our work and our culture.

This year, our speaker was Errol Doebler, a former Navy Seal who is also a proponent of the Wim Hof method. His topic was how to strategize and plan in order to adapt to sudden, stressful conditions such as combat. Now, we don’t expect any combat in our industry – with the exception of the occasional Nerf Gun War -- but it did help to put stress planning into perspective: if his method is effective when people are shooting, then it will definitely work when dealing with day to day difficulties.

And here’s the thing: we experience struggles outside of work, too. We all have flaws, we all have weaknesses, and we all ideally try to grow in various ways in our personal life.

Case in point: I hate the cold.

I don’t mean, “I dislike it when it’s snowing outside”; I mean that I keep my house at 78 F year-round, keep a heater under my desk even in summer and drink hot water all day in an effort to keep warm. I *really* don’t like the cold.

So, of course, this year our team-reinforcement event was … an ice bath.

Trust is the foundation of teamwork

The first thing I said when I heard about the ice bath was, “Can we just repeat the fire-walk event from a few years ago”? I was told “no,” and assured that no one would have to do the ice bath if they didn’t want to, but to please keep an open mind about it.

The team performing breathing exercises

The day arrived and, truth be told, I was leaning heavily against going in. Doebbler started the day describing the Wim Hof method, which uses a series of breathing exercises to “hack” the bodies’ autonomic system to better adapt to the cold. As a group, we performed the breathing exercises and were ready to go into the ice.

24 degree ice bathThe breathing had helped, but more than that, I wanted to face my fear of the cold.

Clearly, I did not volunteer to be first, but when it was my turn, I went. Lori was my partner. Lori and I faced each other across the tub, stepped in together and submerged ourselves.

This is where I’m supposed to say that it was all easy, and that the breathing exercises and the cheers of my coworkers made the experience similar to stepping in a Jacuzzi. Except … it wasn’t. It was cold. I started cussing, and almost broke Lori’s hand when my hand contracted into a fist. But she and Errol helped me through it, and we spent two minutes neck-deep in ice water.

Lori Brewer and Kyle Kelly in ice bath

Once I got out, though, it occurred to me how much that dwelling on the upcoming ice bath had dominated my thoughts during the morning. Once it was over, I felt as though a weight had been lifted, and enjoyed the rest of the day that much more. It also made me realize that my perceptions of an upcoming event – whether a meeting, or a code release, or even a night out with friends – actually impact the enjoyableness of that event. I resolved to try to live more “in the moment,” and not let any unrelated worry impact my joy of an experience.

It made me realize that my perceptions of an upcoming event actually impact the enjoyableness of that event."

It was a great experience for me, and I feel that I bonded with Lori just a little bit more. Being submerged in ice exemplified why I love working for this company – it’s because our people will help you through the struggles and celebrate your victories.

That’s reinforcement.