You’ve all been there and done that: the company “team bonding” extravaganza. The ones that might be held off site and include facilitated exercises, games and the like. You’ve had a front row seat to the awkwardness that can ensue — “forced fun” as I’ve heard it described in the past. Why is it that people who spend a good deal of their lives together, yet often only know one another superficially, are asked to build or express team spirit next Wednesday between 10am-2pm at Dave & Busters?
A common problem with these events is how contrived they can feel. They lay a veneer of ‘team-ness’ over real and often deep seated cultural issues and company problems. They sometimes only succeed in fueling the cynicism that already exists rather than getting people to work proactively for the benefit of all.
Recently, we experimented with an idea that turned out to be enlightening, empathic, informative and fun. The idea is straightforward: know your coworkers beyond their résumé and work personas. Get personal, but not too personal. If you can tap into people’s life experiences, big or small, you can glimpse how they shape attitudes, incentives, motivations and preferences. You get a better sense of what makes them tick and that’s useful when you’re working together day after day.
For us — a group of creative problem solvers — the proposition was simple:
Present your past creative work.
Using design as a storytelling canvas, coworkers highlighted the milestones they felt most shaped who they became in adulthood and which culminated in their employment at this company, with these people, at this time.
Each presentation was half an hour in length and open to interpretation. We had two people present back to back on a bi-weekly basis over a lunch hour. The cadence gave people time to prepare, time to digest other presenters’ stories and still have plenty of time to tackle their day jobs.
An obvious boundary question between work life and personal life came up. How personal is too personal? After all, you don’t talk about your personal life at work on a routine basis. There was also the hurdles that shy or introverted people always face in light of an exercise like this. Would people judge me? It can be nerve wracking to talk about yourself in front of others. One colleague told me “… I was a little uncomfortable … because I tend to be pretty hard on myself when it comes to things I’ve produced,” and “Having it based on your past art work was pretty intimidating.” As a counter balance, however, I also heard, “This is going to be a lot of fun” and “It’s interesting to hear about people’s influencers and how they’ve helped create pivot points in people’s lives. It was a fun way to get to know someone!”
Results & Reactions
You’ll be fascinated, impressed and surprised by the people you sit next to day after day. And they, in turn, will be blown away by your stories. You’ll have insight into your colleagues that can foster empathy, respect and trust — all the things that team bonding is supposed to generate.
Colleagues come into focus as you connect the dots between their past and present. As one of our staff participants wrote, “I think it’s incredible to get a peek inside our co-workers lives. It’s very cool to see where they came from and how they ended up doing what we do. We work with a lot of talented people!”
Another participant told me that the sessions evened the playing field. “It wasn’t about titles or skill sets or years of work experience and instead about knowing the people around you by exposing a side that’s rarely on display in a work setting.”
Coworkers followed up with one another to talk at length about certain topics, events and past design samples included in their presentations. Connections were made. “I’ve actually been thinking about how to produce more ‘art’ since we’ve begun this whole exercise. I guess you could say it’s been another source of inspiration for me.”
This exercise won’t take a team from dysfunctional to functional overnight, mind you. Good working relationships and a dynamic, well functioning culture take effort and intention. This is just one tactic we discovered to be effective.
Below is the presentation I made to my team as part of this exercise over a GoToMeeting. Others followed the same basic path, but reinterpreted and reformulated it to suite their needs and the stories they wanted to tell. Note my hesitancy and vulnerability, but also (hopefully) insights into how my mind works that probably wouldn’t arise in ‘normal,’ everyday work interactions.
Tips for Success
- Team building should not take place during off hours. People have a life outside of work and it should be respected. If anything written here is important to you, then it’s important to dedicate the work day to it.
- Don’t make it mandatory. It only works if people desire a deeper connection with others or who want to invite people in for a closer look. Leave what to share and how to share it to each person. The interpretation is, in itself, a window into the person.
- Go back in time as far as necessary or desired. It will take time to think through what is, at first glance, a simple question. Allow enough time for people to craft their story, find representative things to highlight and to prepare a presentation (the fidelity of which is theirs to decide). As one colleague voiced it, “I approached the presentation as how I got to where I am. Basically a life history picking out the things I thought had an affect on me becoming a creative.”
- Be a model. If you introduce this concept, be willing to go first. Initially, no one was quite sure what this exercise was going to be or what the expectations would be for them if they chose to participate. As the person who pitched the idea and the first to go, I too wasn’t sure where I’d end up. Mine was likely the least autobiographical and, having seen where others took their presentations, I would personalize it to a greater degree than I did.
- Allow for a short Q&A at the end of each presentation. Let the seeds of further connection take root with a short follow-up period.
- 30 minutes per person worked well as did scheduling two people every other week.
Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing
I’m reminded of a group development model from business school days that describes the stages any group goes through as they develop:
- Forming groups are new to one another and things are polite as relationships are built.
- Storming groups have built strong enough ties to express criticism and divergent opinions.
- Norming groups are able to get past conflict to rally around common goals.
- Performing groups are those that are self reliant, proactive and well functioning on all levels.
An exercise like the one described in this article can fit into any of these stages. It can be used as a means to connect people in early stages and as a means to build trust and self sufficiency in people during later stages. What your team gains is contingent on many factors, some of which are beyond this article’s scope. Nonetheless, our team found it beneficial and yours can too.
I’d be interested to hear from groups who try this or something similar. Leave your feedback!