Teambuilding: Essential for Crew or Waste of Time?

19 January 2010 By Rubi McGrory

Stew Jessie raises an eyebrow when asked if she had ever taken part in a crew teambuilding exercise. “Isn’t that when the whole crew goes to the pub for a night out to boost morale?” she responds hopefully.

In the corporate world, teambuilding retreats and seminars are a common way to create a unified workforce. Many companies employ firms that hire small sailing yachts for teambuilding purposes. The skills necessary to sail a yacht include communication, cooperation and camaraderie, many of which are lacking in the workplace.

If what we do for a living is the means by which others build teamwork, are we exempt from such activities? For a group of people who live together, work together and whose undies frequently mingle in the laundry, doesn’t a teambuilding exercise seem a bit redundant?

“Not really,” says Capt. Jack, a 25-year industry veteran. “Giving the whole crew the day off to head out to the beach won’t change anything. A leisure activity doesn’t force you to do anything you wouldn’t normally do or spend time with other crewmembers, it won’t challenge you.”

Jack points out that such exercises provide crewmembers with an opportunity to learn more about their colleagues, and might open up new roads to know one another. “One of the most devastating things that can happen within a crew is for cliques to form.” Tight social groups tend to be exclusionary and set negative patterns within the group as a whole. Teambuilding training crosses those boundaries and removes power and social strata.

Joe Noonan has been coaching corporations and executives through teambuilding exercises for more than 20 years. He formed Crew Synergy to bring that same approach to the yachting industry. He feels that “just because we have the responsibility to work together does not mean that we have reached the pinnacle of what we can achieve as a group.”

Noonan agrees that while the quality and splendor of the yacht, toys, food and her overall cleanliness are important, there is something far more important and not quite as tangible: the harmony of the crew. “We are all sensitive to strife on board and guests and owners are aware of it as well,” he reports. Through his training sessions, he gives crewmembers tools to communicate and cooperate.

On a larger yacht, it may be that the chef only speaks with the engineer when something is broken. The dynamic of their relationship is based on one of need and compliance: the chef needing the steamer fixed NOW and the engineer needing to stop what he is doing and work on it immediately so the guests may be fed on time. While this is all under the auspices of better service to the guests, the chef is probably frazzled from a major galley failure and under serious time constraints. The engineer, meanwhile, is attempting to repair a dryer malfunction while the stews are faced with a pile of wet towels. Everyone responds inappropriately because no one knows an alternative.

A teambuilding program provides an opportunity for a crew to learn how to communicate in a stressful situation without the guests or boss as part of the equation. These exercises can take the form of high ropes courses, diving activities or even the simple act of assembling a bicycle. Don’t confuse this with the format of reality shows, designed to heighten drama and tension and eliminate the team in favor of one individual. Every step of the way during teambuilding, crew are encouraged to discuss their feelings and to learn positive ways to communicate even negative sentiments.

Capt. Jack says the most important aspect of these exercises is their moderation. “It’s not about me, I am not the authority figure. The activities are carefully planned and I am not the one ushering us through the day. I am one of the crew here.”

Capt. Ken, another industry veteran, has taken his crew through one of Noonan’s Crew Synergy programs and claims he subsequently had his best season ever. He is currently running another yacht and explains, “I've just had my biggest crew turnover in the past three years and am considering bringing Joe in again.”

Shayna is stewardess aboard a boat that went through a teambuilding exercise. “I loved it! Afterwards, I felt a closer bond to all of my crewmembers.”

Her crewmate Pete, an engineer, disagreed. A private, quiet person, he felt the day was too touchy feely and took away from time he could have been ordering spares and preparing for a busy season.

Through Crew Synergy, Noonan offers several training packages, including a half day from $1,495, a full day from $2,995 or two days from $7,295. These prices are exclusive of travel and facilities. Noonan will work with your crew anywhere from the aft deck to underwater.

“There is one major drawback to these programs,” Capt. Jack points out. “If there is somebody on your crew you think is a total numbskull, a teambuilding exercise will definitely suss that out.” So, you’re stuck with a numbskull, but at least you will be able to communicate with them.