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From the workplace to the wilds

Date

Harriet Alexander

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Dr Travis has an unusually gung-ho approach to corporate team building.

TRAVIS KEMP takes offence at being compared to Bear Grylls. He does not leap pointlessly into hostile environments like the Man vs. Wild adventure man. Nor does he fake ''life-threatening'' situations, as Grylls did when he leapt over hidden smoke machines and claimed it was poisonous sulphur dioxide, for example.

No, Kemp is a corporate psychologist with a PhD and appointments at universities all over the country. When he steps into the wild, he takes with him regular office workers and his expeditions are attempts to improve their workplace dynamic. The idea is to remove people from their comfort zones and force them to change their behaviour, because the consequences of not doing so could be dire.

The results are recorded for Do or Die, a four-part series that takes workers from a cocktail bar, a real-estate agency, a digital-advertising agency and a recruitment agency into rugged terrain. Kemp revels in his dramatic descriptions of the forbidding landscapes, but he insists that this is a clinical exercise.

''What we're doing is a recognised and effective methodology for learning development,'' he says. ''The purpose is not just to pit man against the elements. If you wanted to call it something, it's 'the thinking man's Bear Grylls'.''

Once in the new environment, problems within each group quickly surface, to the extent that you have to wonder why some workplaces chose to be involved. In fact, there were no shortage of applicants.

''There were a whole bunch of people who put their hand up to be involved,'' Kemp says. ''I think the core reason was they really believed they were a fairly functional and high-performing team at the beginning. It's an adventure.''

Within the first 24 hours, their dysfunction is exposed. The cocktail bar proves to be a divided workforce led by a management team that will not brook criticism.

The real-estate team is revealed as nepotistic and uncommunicative. The digital-advertising agency has a reluctant boss and is crippled by committee-style decision making. And the recruitment agents are a bunch of whingers. As they learn these unpalatable truths, some of them change.

''When people initially get out there, they just keep behaving as they do in the office,'' Kemp says. ''It forces people to see each other differently.''

The teams' first task is to choose between items they think they might need for the next five days, knowing they will have to carry them. This is their first test and Kemp is already watching to see how well they co-operate. Initially, his touch is light, standing back and asking pertinent questions.

On the third day, Kemp fails to arrive at camp and they are forced to go it alone. This is when they either discover their mettle or struggle. One month later, two of the teams have broken up. And while some teams have flourished since the experience, other participants don't seem to have mended their ways.

But, Kemp says, there is only so much he can do. At least everyone is made aware of their weaknesses, and whether they decide to act upon this knowledge is up to them.

''I want a dollar for the number of people who say awareness is half the problem. Two per cent is awareness and 98 per cent is constant hard work to change it.''

Do or Die 
ABC2, Wednesdays, 8.30pm

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