What ever happened to jumping off a cliff?

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October 15, 2002 // UPDATED 1:32 pm - April 30, 2007
By: Elana Centor
Elana Centor

A '90s workplace fad, revisited

"So," I asked, "are corporations still having people jump off cliffs to improve team performance?"

Jumping off cliffs was the "it" corporate activity of the mid-1990s. It seemed everyone who was anyone in corporate America was flying 2,000 miles away from their downtown headquarters to spend four days in the wilderness to jump off cliffs, hug their teammates, and hopefully, come back to work with a stronger sense of trust and team spirit. .

"There hasn't been a lot of cliff-jumping recently," acknowledged Dan Quinn, President and CEO of Boston-based AON Management, one of the country's largest leadership solution consulting firms.

"Didn't it work?"

"Corporate America's priorities have changed," said Quinn. "People have been getting cost-reduced, transformed, and 9/11-ed. The budgets aren't there for the soft and fuzzy. The trend today is on Six Sigma and leadership," he said.

In case you aren't up on the latest business trends, Six Sigma requires organizations to follow a methodology to eliminate customer dissatisfaction. It is very, very popular in the boardrooms and executive suites.

Even though cliff-jumping is now as pass as job security, I couldn't help wondering about all those mountain-hopping corporate executives. Where were they today? Did the experience have a life-altering impact? Are they better executives today because of the jump?

Lorraine, a former Downtown corporate executive who was downsized several years ago, jumped off the cliff not once, not twice, but on three separate occasions.

"Why did you have to jump three times?" I asked.

Lorraine is no dummy. You'd have thought whatever she needed to learn jumping off a cliff that plunges straight down to a river, she'd learn on the first jump.

Lorraine explained, "In order for the training to work, you have to go through it with your current team members. Over a period of three years, I was assigned to three separate teams that were assigned to go jump off a cliff."

"Didn't the experience lose some of its impact?' I asked.

"Obviously, it wasn't as terrifying to go off the cliff after the first time. It did give me the opportunity to reassure my teammates and give them encouragement. I liked doing that."

"But did it make your team more effective?" I asked.

"Quite honestly, you learned a lot about yourself. How you respond to fear. How you respond to other people's fear. Did we work better? I think people got along better. We were probably more considerate, less impatient, less abrupt. But are you asking if we got more work done? I'm not convinced that we did."

Neither is Gillian, another former corporate executive. Gillian, however, did something that no one else in her company had dared do before: she didn't jump. "I made it to the zip line and my knees buckled. The program leaders said, 'you've gone as far as you can go,' and that was that. Later, one of my team members came up to me and said that was the bravest thing anyone had done on the trip."

"Why did he say that?" I asked.

"Because everyone thought they were going to be reported on their performance, and the rest never considered that not jumping was even an option."

"How would you rate the overall experience?"

"I learned a great deal about the people I worked with, but it didn't make our team stronger. We were dysfunctional before the trip, and we continued to be dysfunctional." Gillian said.

So the question is: will corporations ever ask employees to jump off a cliff again?

Consultant Quinn says that team members don't need to hold any dates on their calendars for cliff-jumping. Instead, when the economy recovers and corporations stop downsizing, Quinn believes corporations will need to put their focus on ways to rebuild trust with the employees who have survived the latest round of "transformations."

What will that look like?

Quinn said, "Businesses will provide employees with leadership development that is more personally focused."

Sounds like something that would definitely appeal to the "Me" generation, those 30-something employees that corporations are most interested in retaining -- at least for the time being. I'm not sure that this new trust-rebuilding strategy will have quite the same appeal to 40- and 50-something baby boomers whose attitude is probably best captured by President Bush, who recently said, "fool me once, shame on...shame on you. Fool me...you can't get fooled again."

If you have a good workplace dilemma or just a good story to tell, please contact Elana Centor at ecentor@mn.rr.com. You can remain confidential, as can your company.