Bonding in the mud
Yeoh Guan Jin 
Participants at a Tough Mudder bootcamp, which seeks to test every participant to the limits – physically and mentally

It is a basic mantra of the corporate world – if everyone can work together for the good of the company, there is a better chance that the business will do well. There is a whole list of activities that are supposed to help executives bond with each other based on the understanding that if you can stick together, there’s a better chance that you will also be able to work together.

Many companies now make bonding or team-building exercises a part of their business strategy.

The annual retreat for senior execs is one example of a bonding or team-building exercise. This is when all in the top management isolate themselves from their subordinates, usually at a location away from the office.

During the few days they are forced to be together, these execs engage in various activities that they may not necessarily indulge in at work – from intellectual exchanges to physical engagements.

The idea is to find out more not just about your colleagues but also about yourself. The assumption is that you don’t get to know everything about the guy who sits in the adjoining office even if you engage with one another at work every day. Activities over an extended period of time while outside work hours may just reveal something about him or her that you’ve never seen before.

There’s also yourself to think about. You may find some ability that you never knew you had. Your colleagues will get to know more about you at the same time.

But team building and bonding exercises are more than just sitting around the table discussing ideas and debating business plans, or even running obstacle courses.

Now there’s one company that likes executives to get down and dirty – literally. Part of the course requires participants to get soaked in the mud, never mind that they may still be in their expensive business suits and Gucci shoes of precious skins.

Participants are expected to run a 10-mile mud-soaked obstacle course not unlike what soldiers may engage in while preparing for a military offensive. Otherwise there are obstacles along the course that couldn’t have been taken from anywhere but the American Ninja Warrior series you see on TV.  It’s not for the faint hearted.

The objective of this course, called Tough Mudder Bootcamp, is to test every participant to the limits – physically and mentally. But how will this help make them better at their jobs?

It’s the importance of purpose in any organisation, Tough Mudder CEO Will Dean tells business magazine Fortune in a recent interview. “We don’t pretend we’re curing cancer, but we are getting people to live healthier, active lives and spend time with one another,” he says in the interview.

Activities organised by another company – AdVenture Games (AG) – take a different path. They require participants to take on spying missions, kidnap the boss or to find the way out of a locked room within an hour.

According to AG founder Chad Michael, the games test a person’s time management and teamwork skills and strategic thinking.

While team building may be dismissed as a waste of time in various circles, it has become the most important investment any company can make for its people, according to American-Canadian entrepreneur Brian Scudamore.

Scudamore, the founder and CEO of O2E Brands, a company that offers business ownership opportunities in the home services sector, is also a regular contributor to Forbes magazine, writing on various subjects, including building corporate culture.

According to a March 9, 2016 article he wrote for, team building builds trust, mitigates conflict, encourages communication and increases collaboration.

“Effective team building means more engaged employees, which is good for company culture and boosting the bottom line,” he writes.

Team building has, indeed, become an industry unto its own. As Dean of Tough Mudder has shown, businesses are prepared to invest heavily to get more out of their employees, especially those at the senior management and decision-making levels.

However, it is not easy to put a value to the business of team building. After all, the definition of team building or bonding is quite loose. For instance, taking your team out to lunch can also be seen as a team-building exercise.

And it is big business. For instance, the social team-building exercises industry alone is worth about £100 mil (RM560 mil) a year, according to James Coakes, who has been conducting team-building events for 20 years.

But one cannot help being cynical about the real value of such activities. If two executives don’t bond while at work, how much closer can they get after a few days running obstacle courses together?

Where the sceptics are concerned, these are purely guided activities and the outcomes are probably decided ahead.

But for every cynic and sceptic out there, there are many who vouch for team-building and bonding exercises as well. After all, it can’t be all that bad if even Fortune 500 companies swear by it.

Among the companies that have sent their executives for such boot camps are Reebok, Google, Facebook, Dell, Tiffany & Co, Cigna and Coca Cola.

The participants are raving about these exercises, according to an article on Nikki L of Google observes that “even the most cynical and hard-to-impress on the team were highly engaged” after attending an AG team-building event.

So, perhaps there are some benefits after all to spying on the boss, or getting your Prada shirt all muddy.

Yeoh Guan Jin is a veteran journalist. Comments:

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 260.