I am sure you have experienced it yourself – the standard “team-building” exercise or retreat where colleagues are thrown together and asked to perform “fun” activities with the intent to foster team cohesion.
Such activities may involve ropes courses, indoor rock climbing, treasure hunts (even involving sophisticated apps), karaoke, or perhaps your boss’s favourite pastime (such as hiking).
Although on the surface such activities can be pleasurable, they suffer 2 major limitations, making them mostly a complete waste of time.
Firstly, it is rare to find an activity that all participants enjoy. For example, if you are an introvert such as myself, any group activity that is biased towards extroverts does little to make you feel part of the team – in fact it does quite the opposite. There is nothing worse than being an introvert and being forced to sing karaoke in front of your colleagues, for example. I can name a hundred similar activities that myself and other introverts have had to endure over the years.
The second issue, is that such team-building exercises even if they are enjoyed by most, simply just don’t work in terms of fostering deep connections that will have any impact on your business.
John Gottman is one of the world-leading experts in relationships. So much so that listening to a couple speak to each other for 15 minutes, he can predict with around 90% accuracy whether or not the couple will divorce.
According to Gottman, one of the main components of close connections is having “love-maps.” That is, having a detailed mental representation of the other person’s history, likes and dislikes and inner experiences. That is, connection is heavily dependent on knowing about each other, but also using this knowledge accordingly (e.g., asking questions that demonstrate that you care).
And if “love-maps” are the thing that we need most in building deep connections, you can see how standard team-building exercises that are simply “fun” fall way too short. And you might also see how many standard workplace cultures might also be detrimental (i.e. those that prohibit bringing in personal photographs and belongings into the workplace).
Team cohesion is based on trust, empathy and caring. We need exercises and cultures that promote the sharing of ourselves with others.
And when people feel psychologically safe to be themselves and to share their opinions and experiences, this is where the corporate magic starts to happen in terms of team creativity and productivity.
There are many ways that you can promote team connection and cohesion, that won’t cost you a cent. Below are three of my favourites:
Cake Day: Once a week have someone bring in a cake to work for the team to share. The rules of cake day are this however – on lunch break, the whole team is expected to be there, but no-one is allowed to mention work, at all. That time is devoted entirely to getting to know each other better, discussing things such as family, hobbies, interests etc. Dedicated time to “bond”
36 Questions: If you really wish your team to establish a quick connection, say on a retreat, assign them the 36 Question exercise (that takes around 45 minutes) for pairs to complete. Be strategic on whom you would like to form closer relationships and pair people up throughout the course of your standard event. The survey was developed by social psychology researcher Arthur Aron, and has been empirically shown to foster interpersonal closeness. The questions can be found here.
Personalise your Workplace: a great way to promote and spark personal discussion is to allow your physical workplace itself to promote self-disclosure. Encourage your employees to bring in personal pictures, or items signifying what is most important to them and have them decorate their own workspaces. And as part of your culture, encourage your managers and leaders to pay attention and ask questions about these elements as part of their daily interactions.
The overall aim of team-building exercises is highly important – deepening connections between people in order to boost corporate performance.
What is lacking however in most such exercises, is that they don’t really foster such connectivity.
What we need most is dedicated time – time to be mindfully attentive to each other and to create better mental maps of others’ inner worlds – a connection to who they ARE and what THEY care about.
Feeling cared about not only is great for the employees (in terms of job satisfaction and psychological wellbeing), it is one of the best things you can do for boosting corporate performance. It’s a total win-win.
Dr Scott Bolland is an executive coach, international speaker, facilitator and futurist. His PhD and background (of 25 years) are in the area of Cognitive Science - the scientific study of how the mind works, spanning areas such as psychology, neuroscience, philosophy and artificial intelligence. His passion is playing in the intersection between these areas, in particular how to best prepare individuals, teams, schools and organisations to flourish in the digital age.