Trust Isn’t a Game


Shawn Bomgardner, an MBA student at Seattle University, has sued the school and the training firm Teams and Leaders Inc. for making him participate in a required leadership class that included various “trust exercises.” In one of them, he was told to submit to a “trust-fall” from bleachers into the arms of his classmates.

They didn’t catch him. He hit his head on the ground, hard, and now has permanent brain damage.

The injuries forced Shawn to drop out of school and quit his job as an auditor for Costco.  Bomgardner’s wife has had to take time off work to “undertake additional responsibilities as a result of Shawn’s continued deficits, persistent depressive symptoms and diminished cognitive functioning,” the law suit says, adding that  “Shawn’s injuries have caused loss of enjoyment of life and have impacted his relationship with Becky and his daughter. While Shawn’s symptoms have improved over time, he continues to experience the effects of his injuries,” according to the complaint.”

Maybe this tragedy will have one good result: stopping idiotic seminar and retreat trust exercises, especially the “trust-fall.”

Trust isn’t a game. Trust is earned. That’s all there is to it. Putting one’s health and welfare into the hands, literally, of someone you barely know and who is not trained or certified to do what an exercise requires is madness, and any organization that suggests, forces or requires such symbolic but meaningless nonsense should be run right out of business.

It is true: trust is an absolute necessity for any functioning and healthy society, organization or team. Trust, however, cannot exist in a vacuum. It must be supported by experience, competence, dedication, mutual caring, loyalty and good will.

As someone who has refused to partake in trust exercises more than once, I feel terrible about what happened to Shawn Bomgardner. He was the victim of charlatans who taught that something as vital and complex as trust could be taught with stunts and parlor tricks.

8 thoughts on “Trust Isn’t a Game

  1. Again, trust in the group, trust in the government who supervises the group, trust that you’ll be protected, trust that there are those much smarter than you are who will keep you safe, the nanny state is there for you, on and on…

    • Pardon me, Jim, but how was the government even remotely involved in what happened here? Seattle University is a private Catholic school. Teams & Leaders, Inc. is a private company. The government had nothing whatsoever to do with Shawn Bomgardner’s injury. The government, however, provides Mr. Bomgardner with a legal system wherein he will be able to seek justice for the harm caused to him by these private parties. That’s a good thing. Wouldn’t you agree?

      • My assumption was that Jim was making an analogy between unjustified trust in leadership groups and trust exercises and unjustified trust in government. I don’t think he was asserting that the incident itself had anything to do with the government. Such are the lateral threads on Ethics Alarms..

  2. I only hope Mrs. Baumgardner sues not only the University and “Teams and Leaders, Inc.,” but also — individually — the morons at Seattle University who hired them. This kind of thing has already been proven to be futile and stupid as team-building or leadership-building. Suffocating in a fire-tent, or walking on hot coals, or falling backwards into the arms of strangers does nothing for anyone but cause harm. This is just one of the worst, and saddest, cases I’ve heard of.

  3. My son was dropped on the floor in first grade during an exercise like this, although the activity was not that he had to fall off something but that his classmates throw him up and catch him, like baseball players do after a game. The class broke up into groups, and each kid had their turn being tossed three times. Eventually, the kids had to be getting tired, my son was the last to be thrown, and nobody caught him the third time. He did manage to turn himself a bit, but he still struck his head on the gym floor. He wasn’t severely injured, but he had a helluva nosebleed. I was never told about it, I found out when he was in 6th grade and he listed it as one of the things that happened to him in his 6 years at that school in an illustrated scroll they were making. Evidently the teacher (with whom we had other problems) convinced him it was no big deal.

  4. I work in team and leadership building and I can say as a professional with 11 years of experience, that there should never be a situation where someone is being caught by strangers or dropped. A trust fall used properly is at the end of a sequence of trust earning and learning safety techniques and applying them. Many people have gained a lot from experiences that are discussed and linked to areas in our everyday life where we use those same skills such as problem solving, listening, trying others ideas, giving and following good instructions and supporting others as well as trusting those who have earned it. Having not been there I can’t say whether the activity was scheduled and not worked towards, or whether the instructor skipped steps, or allowed a group who should not have been doing the activity in the first place, like the first grader mentioned above, or one who is not working as a cohesive group toward a common goal and physically capable.Also an individual should never be pushed to participate beyond the level of being challenged into physical or emotional danger. There are many who use these activities inappropriately and should be held accountable, and I am very sorry for anyone who has had a bad trust activity. But there are others who have had better leadership and had a positive lifelong impact.

    • I’m puzzled. 1) If they are not caught or dropped, what happens to them? 2) What exactly is meant by “strangers”? Most of us barely know our co-workers except within a narrow context.

      Do you advocate the use of a Trust fall, or not, and if so, why? What does it prove? The situation is completely artificial. If there is no chance that anyone will be dropped, then there is no need for trust. It’s a catch 22.

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