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Extreme Management

Some workers would walk over hot coals for their jobs. Or fly from a trapeze. In the name of teamwork, companies are asking employees to perform all sorts of odd feats.

November 20, 2001|ROY RIVENBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Whoppers aren't the only things getting flame-broiled at Burger King these days. So are employees' feet. In Florida last month, a dozen people attending a motivational seminar suffered burns while strolling on a river of hot coals. They also marched across a bed of nails and smashed their hands against inch-thick boards.

No, Burger King hasn't opened a house of torture for its workers. The seminar was part of a small but growing trend in which corporations use offbeat gimmicks to boost morale and teamwork.

At Latitude Communications in Santa Clara, employees have dangled from a circus trapeze, ridden mechanical bulls and rushed into a flaming trailer wearing firefighter suits.

Other team-building schemes on the market include rattlesnake roundups, race-car driving, grape stomps and a "sea rescue" in which toy helicopters airlift bikini-clad Barbie dolls from a shark-infested pool. (Apparently, nothing improves employee morale like saving Barbie from Jaws.)

Although the sluggish economy has prompted some corporations to ax such programs, others consider them more vital than ever. But some management experts remain skeptical. "There's no limit to the number of nutty things people will do as ways to help their companies get ahead," says Eileen Shapiro, author of "Fad Surfing in the Boardroom."

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On a drizzly October night in Key Largo, Fla., "Ride of the Valkyries" boomed through loudspeakers as 125 Burger King staffers huddled under beach umbrellas trying to bend silver spoons with their hands. The tiki torches had flickered out, but an 8-foot-long bed of coals glowed eerily in the darkness, waiting for bare feet.

Cork Kallen, a Miami motivational speaker, led the session. Once the spoons were contorted, he hauled out a long wand of steel rebar and asked two volunteers to place opposite ends of it against their necks. Then he told them to walk toward each other.

As they did, the bar bent. The feat is "a jaw dropper," Kallen says, because it looks impossible. Ditto for walking on nails and breaking boards bare-handed. "It all sounds very mysterious and crazy," he concedes. "But it's designed to show people that they have more power than they thought ... that they can break through fears and limiting beliefs."

The grand finale is the fire walk, an ancient ritual that has been repackaged as a New Age system for personal growth. Dozens of "certified" instructors now peddle hot coal seminars, promising higher productivity and profits for corporate clients. "The fire walking sales team is truly an unstoppable force," boasts one brochure.

Uh, not exactly.

EMC, a data storage company, has sent 5,000 employees on coal strolls since 1995, at a reported cost of $625,000. "Fire walking helps [the staff] prepare for intimidating sales situations," explains EMC's February newsletter. "Overcome self-doubt, and everything is possible."

Well, maybe not every thing. Since February, the value of EMC stock has skidded from $80 a share to about $16.

From a scientific standpoint, bending rebar or walking on nails or coals is nothing extraordinary. "The longer the rebar is, the more flexible it is," says Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine. "Ask them to try it with a 6-inch piece of rebar and see what happens."

Likewise, a bed of nails is harmless if the nails are very close together. "It's about weight distribution, not mind over matter," he explains.

As for fire walking, it's similar to reaching inside a hot oven, he says. Although the air inside is just as hot as the metal oven rack, you won't get burned because air is a poor conductor of heat.

With a bed of hot coals, the wood transmits heat very slowly, so it's possible to trek across quickly without injury, Shermer says.

Fire walk instructors disagree. They claim thoughts can alter people's body chemistry and empower humans to withstand the 1,000-degree embers. Unless something weird happens.

In 1999, after nine National Guard recruiters scorched their feet at a motivational fire walk in Colorado, organizers blamed "bad wood" that was "a couple hundred degrees hotter than it was supposed to be," according to the Denver Post.

In another instance, a veteran instructor whose feet got toasted told reporters it was because the guy who chopped the wood was angry and the anger remained in the wood.

As for Burger King's unlucky coal-walkers, who suffered first-, second-and third-degree burns, "some people just have overly sensitive feet," says seminar leader Kallen. "If this was an event where you couldn't get a blister, it would have no meaning."

Still, Burger King execs were pleased with the outcome. "We're more of a team today than prior to the event," says company spokesman Rob Doughty, who was one of about 80 people to trudge across the coals. "It was very inspiring."

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Bizarre methods for motivating employees are nothing new.

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