let’s have a remote staff retreat to publicly review everyone’s strengths and weaknesses

A reader writes:

Asking for a friend (no, really!): My friend’s boss has decided to host a remote retreat and have all employees “review” each other publicly. Like, round-table-style, everyone weighs in on each individual’s strengths and weaknesses in front of the whole group, allegedly for the purpose of team building.

My instincts tell me this is a spectacularly bad idea, for oh! so many reasons, but chief among them is that it seems unlikely to yield the results she’s going for. I doubt most people would be comfortable candidly evaluating each of their peers, face to face, and in front of the rest of the team. (Personally, I’d be a little suspicious of anyone who would find this sort of thing a breeze, but I still have PTSD from my high school’s Mean Girls so I acknowledge it may just be me…)

Although the retreat is already confirmed and is happening no matter what, we’re hoping it might not be too late to have this manager rethink her format, at the very least. I’ve been researching this issue online, and the only articles I can find that address peer evaluation are predicated on the assumption that the evaluations are submitted anonymously. I can find nothing weighing the relative wisdom or folly of coworkers sitting around a conference room and publicly assessing each other’s job performance, one after the other. Is it because this a nutty plan? And if so, how can my friend help her boss see the light?

Yes, the reason you’re not finding anything out there on having all your employees tell each other what’s wrong with them is because it is indeed totally nutty. Spectacularly nutty, in fact.

If I were your friend, I’d point out the following to her boss:

* Employees frequently aren’t in a position that allows them to accurately assess their peers’ strengths and weaknesses. The guy who irritates his coworkers by how he handles paperwork might be fantastic at bringing in customers, in a role where that vastly outweighs how quickly he turns in his expense reports. The woman who is a wonderful coworker — kind, funny, and awesome at happy hour — might be mediocre at some of the key components of her job, which because of the nature of her role is only visible to her boss. This is part of the reason why we have managers — because there’s value in having a person whose job it is to look at people’s work, assess it, and give feedback.

* If there’s any single rule that everyone agrees on about critical feedback, it’s that it should be given in private, because it’s a sensitive thing. This is the exact opposite of that.

* This manager is asking people to introduce tension into their relationships with coworkers (pretty much the opposite of the alleged team-building purpose). We do not live in a world where most people are perfectly open to hearing feedback about anything from anyone, in front of anyone else. Even if this manager doesn’t know it, most of her employees do. They’re going to be really uncomfortable with being told that they need to talk about their coworkers’ weaknesses. So they either won’t do it, or will focus on inoffensive stuff that doesn’t matter, thus defeating the point of the exercise — or they’ll do it and tension will result. Possibly anger, or bitterness, or defensiveness. Yay, team-building!

If she doesn’t want to get into it at this level of detail, or doesn’t think it will be useful to do that, then I’d try to get others on board for just saying this to her as a group: “We’re not comfortable with this activity. We’d certainly be open to more formal 360 reviews, where feedback is confidential and synthesized into something actionable, but all the literature about 360-type feedback is clear that best practices for group feedback are to do it privately and confidentially. We think this activity will be more destructive to team relationships than helpful, and we’re not up for it.”

{ 200 comments… read them below }

  1. TotesMaGoats*

    Does the boss get to hear about her strengths and weaknesses in a public format from her reports? I’d suffer through hearing my own from my coworkers just to turn the tables on my boss.


    This is beyond awful. Allison’s advice is spot on. I would protest this quite vocally (but in a completely professional way). Nothing good can come of this that I can see.

    1. Dynamic Beige*

      “Does the boss get to hear about her strengths and weaknesses in a public format from her reports?”

      Yes! She should go first, since it’s her idea. You know, so she can set the example of what it’s like to be on the receiving end of things you don’t want to hear gracefully with tact, gratitude and good humour . That would bring this spectacularly bad “team building” exercise to a quick end.

      If they were doing Personality Dimensions®, Myers-Briggs tests, Insights Discovery or any of the hundreds of other types of training that’s out there, that would be OK. Standing around and hearing exactly what other people think of you… uh there isn’t a nope big enough for that.

      1. Alter_ego*

        And the first critique can be “sometimes, you have really bad ideas about the way build morale and create strong teams”

      2. M-C*

        And you might mention that the People’s Republic of China was famous for this exercise in its heyday..

        1. AVP*

          I was just thinking it sounded a little like those famous meetings in North Korea where everyone gives each other feedback on their perceived “patriotism.”

        2. Paige Turner*

          Yes, this is like Oneida “mutual criticism” :)
          (To avoid link moderation, just look up Oneida Community on Wikipedia)
          Tangent, but I first heard of this in Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation and that is still one of my favorite books.

    2. maggie*

      Actually, my first thought was ‘wow, I really REALLY hope this blows up spectacularly in her face’ because THAT TOO is pivotal feedback for her to learn….by asking questions. What worries me the most is that I am about 99% certain that this woman likely read something about high performance teams and the individual roles they play within the context of that team — and how they should “always” be open to hear feedback about their performance. But the critical part of this type of dialogue is that you first ‘weed out the poison in your team garden’ otherwise the entire practice backfires.

      OP, have someone send her this thread so she can learn from Alison’s feedback and the comments. Its going to be a total shitshow (while also it’s own learning experience, admittedly, but a much more painful way to learn).

  2. Adam*

    I think this manager may have attended a few too many self-help seminars. Uncomfortable awkwardness is the most I could hope for out of this…

    1. Arbynka*

      Oh man. I went on team building/personal improvement retreat in my first job after school. The lead trainer kept pointing to me saying :”Look, she’s the youngest and only a receptionist and she is doing great”. Speaking of awkward.

      1. Oryx*

        I was just having a conversation with our receptionist about how this one department thinks some of us (myself included) just sort of sit around waiting for them to call us. WE HAVE OTHER WORK TO DO.

          1. Jazzy Red*

            Yeah, a receptionist also needs to be a repair technician because, heaven knows the ENGINEERS who work here aren’t capable of clearing a paper jam.

            1. BeenThere*

              They can but they don’t have a billing code to book the time to. If they spend time fixing a paper jam then have to explain to their pointy haired manager why fixing the printer was more important than generating billable hours. :P

      2. Human IVR*

        I feel you! Went on a training once where, after we all went around and briefly explained what we did, my boss re-described my role in front of the group as, “she just answers the phone.” Instant rage. I do far more than “just answer the phone.” In fact, the phone occupies maybe 2% of my day because I’m not supposed to actually assist callers, just transfer them to the correct person. Frankly, I shouldn’t have been there, and I was shocked he scheduled me for the training at all.

        So the poor trainer spent the next 3 hours trying to make me feel included in the group by coming up with scenarios involving the phone that I am specifically forbidden to do due to the union. I learned a lot about acting mature and professional when you really just want to flip a table and walk out in a huff.

  3. Sassy Intern*

    This is so far off the map it’s reaching Jupiter.

    Who thinks this is a good idea? WHO?! Even for workplaces that are totally open, where everyone loves everyone else, and the team is totally “synergistic,” it’s still a terrible idea.

    1. Nashira*

      I think this is how we got the giant spot: Jupiter thought this through and now the migraine just keeps roving.

  4. Artemesia*

    The 60s and 70 return — remember ‘T groups’ — it didn’t work then and it is a terrible idea now. I know that I, like Mr. Darcy, have a resentful nature. If someone told me about my weaknesses in a public forum I would forever resent them for it — some great team building there. I am just guessing that this clueless boss would deeply resent feedback about his own weaknesses like say arranging truly stupid retreats.

    1. JB*

      I wouldn’t resent them for saying it because they were compelled to, but I’d probably get defensive and resent them for thinking that way about me. The rational part of me would know I was being unfair, and for some people I’d probably be able to think about what they said once I had some distance from it. But for others it would alter how I felt about them and not in a good way. That wouldn’t really be fair to them, but I’d be reminded of what they said whenever I interacted with them after that, at least for a while.

    2. i don't care what they say, they say*

      Yeah. I was reminded of Werner Erhard and ‘est’ – get jammed in a hotel room with 9 strangers for 48 hours and they wouldn’t let you go to the bathroom. Or something like that.

      Actually, the “retreat with public critical feedback” thing might be more helpful – or at least, more interesting – if everyone took some Ecstasy first.

      (expensing the drugs and the pacifiers and the glow in the dark bracelets is left as an exercise for the reader)

      1. MashaKasha*

        Good idea. Actually, any substance would be a good idea. Just imagine if, instead of bursting into tears, everyone would respond to negative feedback with “Wow, that’s deep, man!” Now that is what I call teambuilding!

        1. A Non*

          I can see the next AAM letter now: “We’re all being required to smoke dope as part of a team building exercise, is this legal?”

          Now that I think of it, I’m actually not sure of the answer.

          1. LBK*

            I’m 99% sure they can’t legally force you to consume anything mind-altering, just like they (or anyone, employer or not) can’t legally force you to drink.

            1. Elysian*

              Why not? I can’t think of any law that would prevent an employer from saying “Drink this beer or you’re fired.” I don’t think there’s any special law about mind-altering substances. There are some laws that would protect employees from retaliation/getting fired if they refused to do something that is otherwise illegal (no one is going to get away with “Transport this cocaine across the border or you’re fired” in a court). But I’m pretty sure “Do [insert seriously offensive thing that will cause moral outrage here], or I will will fire you” isn’t against the law in general.

              1. AcademiaNut*

                That’s an interesting point.

                I’m pretty sure it would be illegal to require an employee to have sex or be fired, even if you applied it to all genders to avoid harassment issues, and sex is, in most cases, quite legal. Cigarette smoke might qualify under workplace hazards – that was one of the things that motivated banning smoking in restaurants etc.

                But if a boss can require you to drink alcohol or be fired, then if marijuana is legal, they could require you to smoke it or be fired.

                1. Elysian*

                  I think “Have sex with me or you’re fired” would in most cases be sexual harassment. “Have sex with him over there” might be prostitution (illegal) or the porn industry (legal). So in general context would be important in that one.

              2. LBK*

                I don’t think you can because I don’t think it’s legal for anyone to force anyone else to drink or otherwise become intoxicated. I’d think it would be some form of assault.

                1. Elysian*

                  I mean, physically hold them down and force feed them? Yeah, that would probably be assault. But tell them to do something distasteful or they’re fired? That happens all the time.

              3. Margo Victorious*

                Huh. Interesting question.

                Back in the day I worked for a start-up craft brewery/alehouse and the first two weeks of work included “beer school” for the entire staff. They wanted us to be knowledgable about the beer and food, so for a series of evenings the head brewer and the head chef walked us through samplings of everything we sold. (At the time roughly 22 different beers ranging from hefeweizen to stout.)

                You were generally expected to drink at least 1/4 glass of everything, but I don’t remember anyone objecting. (Though the nature of the company means some selection bias would clearly influence that data.) I wonder what would have happened if someone had refused. They did require rides/taxis home and spaced it out so it wasn’t a drunkfest, but drinking was the point and they strongly encouraged us to have personal knowledge of the product.

                Later I moved a bit up the food chain to administration support, which included participation in weekly beer panel meetings to taste and critique the current brewery output. No one balked at that either.

                On the one hand, it’s horrifying to think a person could legally be fired for refusing to drink on the job. On the other, I do understand why this particular company and others like it would want that in an employee. I guess I can see it being required for a very narrow band of employees, like the brewers who needed to ensure that the product was up to spec. Waiters and secretaries? Not so much.

                But since the rule around here is that it’s usually legal unless is runs afoul of race/gender/ADA/religion, I wonder what the rules are for people without a religious of medical reason to avoid drinking.

                1. Margo Victorious*

                  I still ask myself that on occasion. :)

                  This was my college job, which I hung on to a bit after I graduated since it was one of the few jobs that would allow me to attend every Mariners game of ’95-’96 AND score free parking.

                  Though I don’t typically bring it up in interviews, it was excellent prep for my career as a middle school teacher. Once you’ve gone toe-to-toe with drunken Packer fans peeing on a glass wall overlooking a horrified lobby of parents and their children, 8th-graders are amateurs.

    3. INTP*

      And I have a pretty blunt nature and could give and take the criticism but would then resent everyone who didn’t cooperate with the spirit of the exercise and give constructive criticism for making me look like a meanie or who made me look comparatively bad to management by critiquing me freely but saying nothing negative about the sensitive snowflakes. People are just too different in their communication styles for this to work without everyone being resentful. Hell, I could see it being disastrous for a married couple in a counselor’s office, let alone coworkers.

      If the manager is really set on an exercise structured like this, just saying positive things would be better. Then everyone can infer that they need to work on the areas in which they got no compliments.

  5. Simplytea*

    Have her print this out and anonymously put it on the boss’ chair… Hopefully the result will be hint taken!

    1. AMG*

      I was thinking exactly this! Wait for lots of comments so the boss can see the echoes of resounding ‘Noooo!!!’ over and over.

      1. AMG*

        OP, please be the first person to provide an update that begins with a printout left anonymously on a chair!

        1. The Cosmic Avenger*

          Or, since the OP (supposedly) doesn’t work for the nincompoop…er, I mean boss, who proposed this, maybe the OP can get the boss’s email from her friend, then email a link to this post to the boss from a new Gmail/Yahoo/Live throwaway account.

          Come to think of it, a horrible boss like this probably has his AA print out all of his emails for him. >:|

          1. jamlady*

            I just went through the whole original post and got fed up with that Anonymous person being an insufferable troll. Doesn’t look like this community let that individual stick around for long. Excuse the language, but what an absolute douchenozzle.

            To the original point, I’m very glad the print-out/chair thing worked. I’ve worked in some small offices where the person would probably know exactly who did it (I’m an active person who doesn’t shy from confrontation and a situation like the 2011 post would be something I would have zero issue speaking up about in a professional manner, so they’d know it wasn’t me). I wonder if this post has a similar office to the 2011 poster? I think it’s important to have an office where you can be candid with your manager, but this OP’s manager sounds awfully nutty and may not be so receptive. This whole retreat thing sounds bonkers to me.

    2. LBK*

      Noooo, anonymous complaints are the easiest to ignore and the most likely to cause frustration/resentment on the manager’s part. Especially for someone who has such grand delusions about what consitutes being a good manager. Just go talk to the manager directly.

  6. the gold digger*

    We spent a morning doing this at my workplace in Chile, where I was a Peace Corps volunteer. My co-workers had absolutely no problems with voicing their opinions of everything I was doing wrong, including that I got way too upset when people left their stuff on my desk.

    I did not enjoy the experience. I have never been a fan of slam books, written or living.

  7. Jessica*

    Ahhh, what a terrible idea! How could she ever expect this to turn out well? Either you will get people erring on the side of being overly nice, thus diminishing the effectiveness of any review. or people will go all out and get hurt feelings and resent each other. Like Alison said, coworkers don’t perceive each other very well all the time. This is such a recipe for disaster. All I can think of is, “airing of the grievances”…

    1. INTP*

      I imagine you’d get both. Some people will be totally comfortable giving constructive criticism and do it, and even if it’s done tactfully, the people who are uncomfortable with any type of criticism will be hurt and resentful that they did so. Then the constructive criticism types will be resentful at the others for refusing to participate, making them look like the bad guys for doing what they were told to do. The people who are more in the middle range will probably offer criticism to people they know can dish it out and take it but not to the more sensitive types because they don’t want to risk looking awful by making someone cry or getting the cold shoulder back at work. The blunter types will be resentful about that, because now they look comparatively worse to their bosses because they received more criticism just for being seen as professional enough to accept it. And god forbid there’s that one person that everyone is secretly fed up with but never voices it because they think everyone else loves them – after the first coworker opens their mouth, the floodgates will open with everyone’s dammed up frustrations with this person.

      So basically, unless the entire team somehow has the same communication style (in which case it would still be a bad idea), I foresee this ending with every person being resentful, just about different things.

      1. INTP*

        I did once tell a class that they were going to have battle royale and the last student alive would get an A. It was because I was introducing a new game and when I got to the rules they groaned about the game having rules at all. (College students so they knew I was kidding-I didn’t traumatize any small children.)

  8. misspiggy*

    Oh dear. If this manager wants to get a range of ideas for her team to improve everyone’s performance, there are ways to do this on a retreat. Usually involving a trained and experienced facilitator organising group discussions, who keeps the focus on challenges facing the team and the strengths of individual members. It can be very productive if done well, but even that very constructive approach will expose any fault lines and tensions within the team, so an aftercare and consolidation process is always needed. Given this boss’s initial plan for the retreat, it sounds like her management approach will have resulted in major fault lines already. She is unlikely to have a follow-up process up her sleeve to heal any wounds. The OP’s friend may want to suggest that only positive achievements and strengths are discussed, with ideas on how to build on those going forward. Challenges will inevitably arise during the discussion, but at least no one will be directly tasked with causing their colleagues pain.

    1. misspiggy*

      Or – if suggesting a different tack to the boss doesn’t work, a fallback could be that the team could all agree in advance to say nothing negative about past work or individuals. This could be done either as an open or more subtle strategy – subtle meaning each person says things like, ‘I can’t really think of anything to improve about Melinda’s performance, but I was really wowed by the way she dealt with the spout development project…’.

  9. Kelly L.*

    I think someone’s workplace tried this, in one of the “worst team building” threads. Everyone ended up in tears and hating each other.

          1. MashaKasha*

            I’m the only woman on the team, so I would welcome a private session in a hot tub. But seriously, yeah, bizarre and awkward!

          2. Anonsie*

            The bath one isn’t weird if you’re somewhere that’s not unusual, like if the office is actually located in Japan. You’d think it would take some doing for foreigners to get totally comfortable with it, but once you’re in there the anxiety dissipates pretty quickly.

            1. i don't care what they say, they say*

              Yeah. In truth, I could probably deal pretty well with the “bath” one. I’ve been to nude beaches before, and it’s remarkable how un-weird it is. I think the human brain is quite facile when it comes to accepting the behavior of your surrounding ‘herd’ as ‘normal’.

      1. Ann O'Nemity*

        One of my favorite discussions of all time! Two of my other faves were holiday party horrors and the Operation Smile hiring fiasco.

      2. Lead, Follow or Get Outta the Way!*

        Thanks for this! I’ve been reading since Nov/Dec 2013 (a long-time lurker) but somehow missed this gem of an article. THIS is what needs to be printed and put on the managers chair, desk, stapled to the front door, sticky note(d) to the computer monitor, a copy on the copier, fax machine (if they still have one) and also in her company mailbox. Okay, maybe a bit overkill but desperate times call for desperate measure…

      3. Ann Furthermore*

        OK, does anyone remember that 80’s movie She’s Having A Baby with Kevin Bacon and Elizabeth McGovern as a newlywed couple? In one scene, she tells him something, and he has a visual of himself in a straight-jacket, screaming, strapped to some sort of contraption that’s careening towards a cement wall at top speed. It crashes and bursts into flames.

        That’s the reaction I had to everything on this list, especially 4 and 9!!

        1. Muriel Heslop*

          I think of that movie every time I watch Downton Abbey! Sometimes, I daydream that Kevin Bacon is Lord Grantham but it always ends poorly.

          1. BananaPants*

            OK, I just realized that the Elizabeth McGovern from “She’s Having A Baby” is Lady Grantham. Now I’ll never watch Downton Abbey the same way again.

  10. MorganLiz*

    This type of activity can be really common in leadership development/executive training type settings. However, it’s usually moderated by a trainer or consultant as opposed to lead by a team lead. It can be a great opportunity for personal/professional development, but not just as a way for employees to air opinions. There usually has to be a lot of other activities involving self-reflection before an activity like this would be done. Overall, this can really help people understand how others perceive them, how they impact others, and ways that their self image differs from the way others see them. On another note, most trainings that involve this level of activity are voluntary and people are there because they crave feedback from others and sincerely want to develop themselves and improve their awareness and abilities.

    In other words/back to the topic, it sounds like the boss is probably taking an activity from their own professional development or training experiences and trying to make it work for his team, which is usually a really bad idea. If he wants to offer development experiences such as this, he should work with an outside firm or the training/HR team within the company.

    1. sam*

      Yeah – my former team (after I left!) did something like this, where the head of the group had the group do a 360 review of herself and then they had a two-day HR-*facilitated* workshop to go through the results.

      And even in this situation, where the feedback was anonymous and filtered by the facilitator, that doesn’t really help things when the group is less than 10 people and the feedback is extremely negative.

      Needless to say, even though she asked for it, and said repeatedly that she wanted everyone to be brutally honest, from what I heard afterwards from people I was still friends with, there were some very hurt feelings.

  11. fposte*

    Oh, in high school we called those “bull sessions.” I don’t think anybody’s high school experience was improved as a result.

    1. Jen S. 2.0*

      I went to sleepaway camp once (and hated every second of it), and there was a counselor in my “hut” who insisted on having “rap sessions” to “clear the air.”

      I remember people telling one girl (thankfully not me) that she smelled and was weird.

      Shortly thereafter, the counselor, who had a deathly nut allergy, left because someone sneaked peanut butter into something of hers, like on her toothbrush or something. Not that I’m condoning that AT ALL, but…I did not miss her.

      Good times. Except not.

  12. C Average*

    If this blog is any indication (and I think it is), the things that irritate colleagues about one another are often only peripherally related to their actual job performance. I could totally see this devolving into “No one will ever take Jane seriously because she has that squeaky voice that’s like fingernails on the chalkboard.” “Yeah, well, that’s rich coming from YOU, Wakeen, the guy who takes 45-minute restroom breaks!” “Well, Apollo, as long as we’re gonna talk about wasting time, do you think no one notices you spend half the workday talking to the social media team about Minecraft?”

    I give this thing strong odds of ending in tears and aspersions on people’s mothers.

      1. Jen S. 2.0*

        Tears are for amateurs. This could end in bloodshed, with people screaming, “We’re all going to die!”

    1. Another Ellie*

      It’s not even surprising that this is the case. I mean, either you’re a passable employee so there aren’t any substantive work related problems that team members on your own level would be aware of, or you’re not a passable employee in which case the other people on your level shouldn’t be the people dealing with the problems. That leaves personality and habit issues for team members to point out, something that will only hurt, anger, and divide the team.

      1. Adonday Veeah*

        +1. I don’t CARE if my voice irritates my co-workers or what they think of my bathroom habits. For real? I work with these people because somebody pays me for it. When they leave somebody else comes to take their place, and I still get the same paycheck. If I’m not earning my paycheck, my boss is the only person whose feedback I care about. Why? Because what she thinks can affect my… wait for it… PAYCHECK. After work, I go home and live my life, and not one of these people is there.

        Whew! I got really worked up there, didn’t I?

    2. AnonEMoose*

      May I borrow that last sentence? Please?

      You see, where I live, there’s a group that does a thing called “Vilification Tennis.” (If you Google this or look it up on YouTube, be warned – it is absolutely, positively, NOT safe for work. One of their slogans is “Those of you who are easily offended, WILL BE. Those of you who are NOT easily offended, WILL BE.” )

      But that sentence, besides being hilarious, would be pretty much perfect for them…

        1. AnonEMoose*

          If you need to refine the search terms a little, include “Minnesota Renaissance Festival” or “CONvergence + Minnesota.”

      1. Hlyssande*

        VilTen is the best! I’m always working during their slot at Fest, but I try to see them at CVG as much as possible.

        I’m pretty sure they also do shows at the Bryant Lake Bowl…or is that just the Dregs?

        1. AnonEMoose*

          Hello, Fellow Minnesotan!

          They do shows at the Bryant Lake Bowl as well, and were part of the Fringe festival at least once. (By the way, my husband and I volunteer with the information booth at Fest – literally our job to tell people where to go at the Renaissance Festival!)

          (Pardon the digression – we now return you to your regularly scheduled discussion thread!)

      2. DMented Kitty*

        I have been at the CVG for the past few years but could never make it to VilTen — always a long line and I am averse to long queues. Maybe I’ll see how it goes this year.

    1. LizNYC*

      I was just thinking the same thing! Who needs a calendar anymore — just go by the posts here ;)

  13. Stephanie*

    Also, I’ll throw out that there’s a chance people don’t adequately understand others’ jobs enough to give any kind of useful feedback.

    1. Laurel Gray*

      Exactly. I think people are going to walk into this retreat with very limited knowledge about what their colleagues do and give them feedback on just this. I think the forum is what will magnify it though, particularly if the feedback is negative.

    2. BRR*

      We had a department wide team building event and were placed into random groups. I was with other teams and we had to announce to everybody how we would something something jargon . Well I had no idea what two of the five people did which gets a little awkward when you’re trying to throw out how we all fit into an idea.

    3. Nashira*

      Yes, so much. I freely admit that it’s taken me two years to get a basic feeling for how different job roles do their tasks, and and what some of those tasks even are, in my office. I have a general feeling now, but only due to boss-assigned cross training and having a few minutes here and there to chat with people about what they do.

  14. MashaKasha*

    We did it in my home country in Eastern Europe, when I was 18 and worked with a group of other fellow college students at a construction site for the summer. After the first month of work, we had an all-hands meeting. Prior to the meeting, our leadership team (which, admittedly, was a small group of 19-year-0lds, but still) had rated the performance of everyone working in our group, total of 40 people. We all had to take turns standing up, someone from the leadership would read your rating, and your teammates would then be allowed to speak up and give you their feedback. Apparently the 18-year-old me was horrible at digging trenches and laying concrete, because my rating and feedback were awful! This was 30 years ago and I still remember it as if it was yesterday, standing there as all 39 of my teammates took turns trashing me publicly. I spent the rest of the summer basically just doing my work, keeping to myself, and avoiding everyone – I could not look anyone in the eye after that meeting anyway! It was bad in that setting then, it would be a hundred times as bad in an office setting now. It would be bad even if everyone would just honestly speak their minds with the best of intentions. If there’s even one competitive, ambitious, and/or backstabbing person on this team, things will go downhill pretty damn fast! These people will never be able to work together as a team again due to all around resentment and possible attempts at retaliation; what is this boss thinking??? I wonder if there’s a contest going on for who can come up with the worst management initiative at their company, because this would certainly get first place!

      1. RVA Cat*

        How horrible!

        Also (guessing because it was Eastern Europe and 30 years ago), I think we can all agree that bosses really shouldn’t try “team building exercises” that originated behind the Iron Curtain.

        1. JMegan*

          bosses really shouldn’t try “team building exercises” that originated behind the Iron Curtain.


  15. Zahra*

    I’ve gone to a retreat where we did a similar round table… where we only said positive things. It could be work-related or not, but the overall feeling was very positive.

  16. Mockingjay*

    Oh, jeez. I posted a few weeks ago (open thread) about my company’s horrid Team Building exercise, which turned out to be a 6-hour Oprah marathon of sharing feelings, instead of tackling the lack of structure and reporting chain. It accomplished ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. We still have the same process problems, stemming from an extremely inexperienced manager and a customer who runs rampant over said manager.

    Could your friend and her coworkers give the boss a list of topics or problems they would like covered? Frame it as “we’d like to use this opportunity for improvement in X. Since we’ll have everyone in the same room, we can get immediate feedback and suggestions so we can move forward quickly.”

    Good luck to your friend!

  17. Laurel Gray*

    “Spectacularly nutty, in fact”

    This is the criteria I use when selecting cookies or the rare candy bar. Great to see it used in career advice.

  18. Jenny*

    I went to a session exactly like this! It was terrible. A group that found it slightly difficult to work with each other before, outright hated each other after. One woman cried openly at the table. You know your team-building is bad if it makes someone cry. I was fairly new to the job (less than a year) and all of my feedback was “The girl who used to have your position did [insert task that no one told you to do and you didn’t know about] so why don’t you do that because that was really cool?” Painful.

  19. Mike C.*

    Let’s make this a real WTF Wednesday – OP, can you confirm that there will be alcohol served at this event?

        1. Laurel Gray*

          Totally sending you the bat signal during this weekend’s open thread for the back story (I have one too!)!!!

    1. Natalie*

      Only if I get to experience my lifelong dream of throwing a martini in someone’s face.

  20. CrazyCatLady*

    Knowing that something like this was coming up would make me so anxious. Such a bad idea!

    1. A Non*

      Yeah. I would probably manage to worry myself sick over this one. Darn.

      (How you know your team building is a bad idea: When people would rather be stuck on the couch puking than participate.)

  21. Angela*

    I cannot imagine this going well. In my position, I learned quickly that the managers I thought were the “strongest” were actually under performing on several of their key tasks. They were great at responding to emails, and following up on things I needed, but frequently those same managers were not doing well in the client facing portion of their role. This is a broad generalization, and definitely not true for 100% of our employees, but I’ve learned that frequently the ones that I’m frustrated with due to slow responses to emails are rock stars with the clients!

    1. OhNo*

      Exactly! It’s the nature of the beast that you only see the parts of your colleagues’ work that affects you in some way. If they’re doing stuff that you can’t see, you’re definitely not going to be able to comment on it, no matter how big or important a part of their work it is!

  22. Editrix*

    If the reason for doing it remotely is because the staff also work remotely, 37 signals/basecamp writes a lot about techniques for virtual teambuilding on their blog (signal vs. noise). Spoiler alert: none of the techniques involve public 360 degree feedback.

    1. Editrix*

      Wait, does remote mean geographically here? Then I take this back. (Sorry, I think we call taht something else in the uk. Outward bound?)

      1. A Non*

        Yep, in this context, a ‘remote retreat’ means everyone going to a retreat facility (which is usually geographically isolated) and staying there for a couple days. So not only does the boss want to make everyone hate each other, they want to make sure they can’t get away from each other afterwards too.

  23. puddin*

    Self assessment and peer assessment can be very useful tools to use and skills to develop. However, there should always be a structure about what is being evaluated and how – like an after action review or a training session. In the presented context it sounds much like a Michael Scott invention.

    To re-direct the approach, I would look at 360 reviews online. Yes in many cases they are anonymous, so you can spend some time having folks fill out the paperwork as the first task. Then buddy up and discuss. If there has to be some sort of ‘public’ component to this, then the buddy can stand up and state what they learned about you – not an evaluation of you or your skills, but an ‘aha’ moment that occurred in the buddy discussion. “I never knew that puddin has an interest in developing relational databases. We developed a plan for how she can do that while still meeting her current role’s deadlines and objectives.”

    I am just spit balling here, but I have been a part of the above types of things and the group, while not keen on the idea at first (myself included), seemed to have gotten something out of it when it was all said and done.

    Good luck to your friend, I hope things turn out for the best!

    1. Elysian*

      Yes, this was my suggestion. The OP says that the retreat will happen; maybe you can convince the Boss to change it to a real 360-review process with a trained facilitator, instead of forcing everyone to tell Sally always makes fish in the microwave and it smells.

  24. Snarkus Aurelius*

    This reminds me of when I had to send Valentines to everyone in my class in elementary school. No joke, I swear, I ended up writing stuff like, “you have nice hair” and “I like the socks you wore on Tuesday” because I had nothing else to say that was positive. I knew I’d get in trouble if I actually said the truth.

    You know how stupid ice breakers and other dumb exercises at team building events insist that everyone can find something nice to say about their coworkers? Yeah… That’s not true. That boss took away the wrong messages from whatever overpriced HR seminar she attended.

  25. Macedon*

    You know, I think it would be a bust as a team exercise, but I’m willing to give it potential as a reality TV show / battle royale premise: twenty co-workers go in, only one emerges with their ego unscathed (probably the person who strategically times an extended bathroom break throughout the entire ordeal).

    1. FD*

      Oh, I can just see it.

      20 average coworkers…

      “Did you get those reports done I asked you for?

      One island…

      “I can’t believe we’re actually here!”

      And things are about to get…ugly.

      “You always dump work on my desk and it [bleep] pisses me off!”

      “I don’t know how you got promoted in the first place.”

      “We all knew what you were doing on the side.”

      “I can’t take this anymore.”

      Peer Review. Premieres March 27 at 7 PM. Only on ABC.

      1. Sif*

        Does anyone remember a reality show from a few years back called “Does Someone Have To Go?” It was kind of like this, but without the retreat part.

  26. The Other Dawn*

    This very much reminds of my teenage years when one friend in the group had some annoying habit and everyone would say, “Let’s all sit in a circle and tell each other what we like and don’t like about each other.” It’s was always made to seem like a way to air out differences amongst the group and move forward, when really it was about the one friend that was pissing everyone off, but nobody wanted to speak up. Safety in numbers, I guess.

  27. Lily in NYC*

    I think everyone should get together beforehand and agree to only say nice things about each other. It could work if it’s a small-ish office with people who get along.

    1. MashaKasha*

      This way, this could still turn out to be a team-building exercise. Granted, in a “the whole team working together to sabotage the boss” way, but what can you do if the boss forces the team to do something destructive?

    2. JMegan*

      I think it could work well, if that were the actual goal. There can be a tremendous positive impact on a group of people sitting around saying nice things to each other. Even if it feels forced, it can still be net positive as long as the comments are both true and relatively substantial.

      But this…sounds like a recipe for disaster. Hopefully OP’s friend can come down with some mysterious ailment that will prevent her from going on the trip!

      1. JMegan*

        ETA, I don’t actually want OP’s friend to be sick, of course. But if she can fake it convincingly, that might be her best way out of this madness.

  28. mel*

    What the heck?? It’s bad enough to have your entire coworker circle gather together to announce what they think might be wrong with you, but you can’t even GO HOME AND CRY??? You have to stay there, surrounded by all of your miserable peers with zero privacy and probably start playing awful pass-the-egg games?

    Soooo what happens if everyone just sits at the table silently? Will management stew until he/she explodes into a laundry list of things that annoy him/her? Because that might be more fun at least.

  29. UK Nerd*

    I think we can all agree that nobody should be getting their management ideas from Regina George.

  30. mel*

    Y’all should get together and invent some fake criticisms beforehand, you know, for fun.

    “Wendy snores!”
    “Joe leaves the toilet seat up.”
    “Jund doesn’t grow his hair long enough and it distracts me from my pencil chewing”

    1. Jennifer*

      I kinda think they should all get together ahead of time and agree on “socially acceptable” “criticisms” that don’t actually bother anyone but make it sound like they’re doing the exercise. No honesty! No no!

      1. A Non*

        Sounds good to me! I’d be happy to pass around mildly annoying things I do that coworkers can bring up without me getting upset. I mean, I’d rather sabotage the exercise in a way that the leader knows it’s being sabotaged, but if it’s not safe to do so this sounds like the best approach.

            1. MashaKasha*

              Judy uses “always” and “sometimes” in the same sentence. AND she hates red, which is my favorite color! There, that’s not just one, but TWO things I do not like about Judy. Should be enough, right? :)

    2. Artemesia*

      I love this. I have wired a few meetings in my time and it is enormously satisfying to watch a devious plot unfold where you determine the outcome and noone but your 2 co-conspirators are aware of it. Derailed a terrible management plan once through the simple technique of having my team agree to build on the first negative comment and always refer to it as ‘Jane’s idea’ (the hapless person who made the first negative comment.) There was a lot of ‘I think Jane makes an excellent point and the proposed plan might also have this issue.’ And then ‘Ebeneezer and Jane are onto something here I think, yadda yadda.’ Jane left the meeting feeling just so effective and we got the terrible no good plan derailed.

      If everyone hates this — and it can’t be derailed, entering the retreat with an agreed upon script for negative feedback — either trivia coupled with positive feedback or negatives that are really positives — is one PA approach. Another approach is to agree to make criticisms that are really process suggestions. e.g. if there is a continuing problem of some process not being completed or communicated and you want to see a new procedure to assure this doesn’t happen, then when it is time to criticize Bentley, you could say ‘This isn’t something that only Bentley does — we all seem to fail to sign out the red stapler when we use it and so it is hard to track down when it is needed — it would be great if all of us could do this consistently.’

  31. Joey*

    Did you really need Alison to tell you this is a spectacularly stupid idea?

    And really, is it realistic to think a boss with this stupid an idea is going listen to your friend tell her how stupid it is?

    I say let it implode and she’ll learn just how dumb it really is.

    1. TW*

      Wow! Telling and OP they shouldn’t write in because the answer seems clear is offensive. Perhaps the OP was looking more for the best language to suggest to her friend to try and prevent this event from happening. Or maybe they just wanted other’s opinions. It does not matter the reason, they had a question and sent it in.

  32. fposte*

    I’m sure somebody here will know more, but wasn’t this kind of Mao’s thing? Criticism and self-criticism?

    1. Katie the Fed*

      Oh yeah, during the Cultural Revolution – much more extreme but they were called Struggle Sessions. Basically it was to submit “class enemies” and political rivals to public humiliation and verbal torment until they “confessed” to their sins against the peasants. They were used a lot against landlords and upper class people.

      But..most of them were executed or sent to re-education camps. Obviously much more extreme.

      1. fposte*

        Right. No execution, and they’re already at the re-education camp, so they’re saving on travel.

  33. Clever Name*

    I would become violently ill the day of and therefore would be unable to attend. This is such an awful idea.

    1. Ann Furthermore*

      I might even go so far as to throw myself down a flight of stairs to break an ankle.

  34. puddin*

    Not sure on that, but I do know the Dread Pirate Robert said, “Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”

    non sequitur de jour

  35. It's tired, and I'm late*

    OMG. A colleague and I managed to nix a session at least year’s retreat that would have involved every member of the team standing up to receive compliments written by other team members, because nope, and we thought that would have been horrible enough. Adding public criticism to the public compliments is just so, so much worse.

  36. Leah*

    You should all go and do it Ellen DeGeneres style.

    “Jake’s handwriting is too neat.”
    “Rosa makes too little money for all the hard work she does.”
    “Amy’s desk is too neat and orderly.”

    1. Michele*

      I love that!
      It is kind of a spin on the “tell me three weaknesses” question when people say, “I am a perfectionist”.

  37. Ann Furthermore*

    Dear god. Why on earth would anyone think that’s a good idea?

    My company does what they call “calibration sessions” each year, where all the managers gather and discuss the rankings they’ve given to their direct reports. So everyone is there for discussion about individual contributors, and then the managers leave while their rankings are discussed, then the senior managers leave, and so on. Even that gives me the willies because it just seems like it has “high school mean girl gossiping” written all over it. And I’m not a manager so I don’t participate in it…but just knowing they’re happening makes me twitchy.

    And this year, they’re rolling out “forced calibrations,” which means everyone’s rankings, in total, have to basically make a standard bell curve distribution. Goody.

    1. Michele*

      I have been told that they used to do something like that here before I started managing people. I even found it in an old handbook. They were supposed to present their case for why each person deserved a raise or promotion or even what they got on their performance evaluation. It wasn’t supposed to break down into a bell curve, but of course, there is only so much money to go around, so a lot depended on how willing your boss was to fight for you.

      I am so glad they stopped doing that by the time I became a people manager.

    2. sam*

      There was a really excellent article in Vanity Fair a few years ago about the “downfall” of Microsoft under Steve Ballmer, and how forced stack rankings played a big part in what they termed a “cannibalistic culture”.

      After the article came out, apparently Microsoft abandoned the stack ranking methodology, but lots of other companies still use it.

      It’s one thing to have grades and even make sure that they’re calibrated so that everyone’s being ranked across the same scale (that one supervisor’s 3 wouldn’t be another supervisor’s 5, or vice-versa), and even perhaps do a sanity check if someone only ever hands out 5s, but forced bell curves in what should be a collaborative environment are stupid.

  38. Dr. Johnny Fever*

    A much better way to approach this would be for the manager to use appreciative inquiry – that’s the art of finding the best in what you have. I’ve led discussion where team members call out things that apprecaite that others do for them. I write these items on paper for each person and hand them out to keep. We stay on the positive. For constructive feedback, we imagine an imaginary team member, Goofus, and we brainstorm what qualities we would not want in a teammate and assign those to Goofus. Those are posted in the room. That way, when someone regresses, another can point it out in a humorous way and get back on track.

    They key is the positive reinformcement aspect within the group. Keep the individual feedback to private moments with the person involved – don’t air that out in front of the team, In fact, we consider someone who would do that to be a Goofus :)

    1. Jazzy Red*

      Great. Now I’m gonna have that song in my head all day.

      Baby, if you’ve ever wondered…

      1. Dr. Johnny Fever*

        I drove my parents nuts singing this theme as a kid! I have lost track of how many times I sat through the closing song trying to figure out the words. Boy, was I surprised 30 years later to learn there were none!

    2. ThursdaysGeek*

      Goofus never gets the report to me on time. Gallant always does my work first and returns it to me the same day I request it.

      1. Dr. Johnny Fever*

        Gallant is our dream teammate, and represents the qualities we admire in each other, as well as how we believe we should treat each other :)

  39. OriginalEmma*

    Why am I imagining your boss as the managerial equivalent of Jigsaw? Bad ideas abound, starting with the cabin in the woods…I mean, remote retreat.

  40. A Teacher*

    I have to say, I read this out loud to a group of sophomores and juniors in high school (career class) and they said, it sounds like the grown up version of Mean Girls. One of the boys thought it could lead to “brawlin'” in his words. So if 15 and 16 years can tell you its a bad idea, well its a bad idea.

  41. Today's anon*

    This made me think of this committee I am on that reappoints people. One of the people who reports to me does very technical work that only about 2 people (and my own boss thankfully) understand and regularly I hear comments in that committee about how he just sits in his office doing nothing…and I have to remind them of all the things he does do, it’s just that they don’t know about it/can’t see it because it is behind the scenes techy stuff.

  42. Jules*

    Are you sure this is not a new reality TV series like Survivor. Who will be voted off the island next…?

    Or this could be one of those personality review like DiSC where you have a frank discussion about what would be the best way to work with you and what ticks you off?

  43. Jazzy Red*

    I just wouldn’t go. The thought of being a part of this in any way makes me feel ill.

    That’s got to be the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard from a boss.

  44. Vicki*

    The sweetly misguided notion that no problems exist among different people except communication problems, and that we would all love one another if only we knew one another better, does seem to Miss Manners to have been exposed with time.
    — Judith Martin (Miss Manners)
    “Employee Retreats Should be Overtime

  45. Laura2*

    Hey, you could make this really “fun” by staging trials of each other before a jury of your coworkers, followed by written confessions detailing everyone’s weaknesses!

    1. i don't care what they say, they say*

      “This is gold, baby! Pure gold!!!”

      Errr … pardon me.

      Seriously, though: I think the office reality television show has actually been done; google on “Does someone have to go?”

      This trial-by-jury idea could have potential, too. Every week they go to a new company, find two employees who don’t get along, assemble a jury of co-workers, and find managers and other co-workers to testify. Get (say) Mark Cuban to play The Judge. Each party would have some ‘celebrity’ as their “lawyer” or advocate … oh, the possibilities …

  46. kd*

    In some ex-job, we had one meeting like this. We were told to evaluate each others hand off’s, work professionalism, ethics, etc. Get down to the nitty gritty. My boss(s) were ecstatic about it all.
    In a large conference room at a long table. It was to be a half day meeting.

    Over in less then 30 minutes. Each person thought everyone else were just spectacular. No complaints. Nothing. No one had questions, no one had anything to add.
    It wasn’t planned out before the meeting. The first person started, the next thought it was a great idea hearing the first and so on. By the time they got to me it was kind of comical, but all had to keep a straight face.

    It did bring us all together as a team for that day (us vs. them) and then we were all back to our dysfunctional normal the next.

  47. Girasol*

    I’d hate that. Then again, I hate the standard soft skills classes with the foursquare quadrants – all the different flavors of them! – and manila envelopes of questionnaires with your name on them given to coworkers. You get into the facilitated session where you learn how all traits are valued and then open the results envelope. The next thing you know people are saying to one another, “Hah! I always knew you were a bathmat/dictator/pansy/nerd! I can read you like a book!” I think I’d sooner take the awkwardness of face to face comments than anonymous ones, but either way, YUCK. Why aren’t there classes that teach how to offer feedback politely and honestly one-on-one instead?

  48. catsAreCool*

    “We do not live in a world where most people are perfectly open to hearing feedback about anything from anyone, in front of anyone else.” This!

  49. Omne*

    I can go one better. There was a management offsite that I was unable to attend due to illness. Apparently they all sat around and passed index cards with people’s names on them and were supposed to put down critical feedback about weaknesses. I assume they then discussed some of them. I wasn’t aware this was planned.

    When I got back to work a couple of days later I found a card in my in-box full of negative comments. No explanation, no context and no names. I had to track a couple of people down to find out what the heck the card was from. It was kind of surreal for a while there.

  50. Ife*

    #2…. Could you set the privacy settings on the posts so that only your boss sees them, and they’re hidden from your friends? I know you can block individual users or groups from seeing a post; maybe there’s a setting to let just certain people see a post? Otherwise just add your friends minus Boss to a group and hide the posts from that group.

    Failing that, I love Alison’s idea of “one horrid but enclosed echo chamber of self-promotion for the company” :)

  51. Me*

    Maybe this boss is tired of the behind-the-back-stabbing that usually occurs and figures if people want to criticize they can do so face to face.

  52. Irene*

    **This advice is dead on!**

    The only manager that’s going to do something like this has NO IDEA about their subordinates or their work relationships so they think that by getting everyone together in the same room talking to one another that it’s going to fix everything.

    I’ve literally seen this in action at my job, and it’s horrible. I have a manager who will take a conflict that should be addressed in private and bring it up in a team meeting like nothing bad is going to happen.

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