Ahh, team building. These two words produce feelings of dread in many employees and bring up images of ropes courses and awkward renditions of Kumbaya around a fire pit.
Back when I lived in San Francisco, I worked for a company that was obsessed with team building. Instead of going to a ropes course, we went to a climbing gym. Even though I found it pretty fun, many of my co-workers did not like the idea of dangling from ropes while everyone looked at their backsides. These individuals bowed out of the activity and stood in the corner pouting…not much ‘team’ building happened that day.
Next, we went to a nature preserve. This time I was uncomfortable. I already have a difficult time with the concept of zoos—I’d rather just watch lions and tigers on Animal Planet. But on this particular day, I remember riding in an open-air wagon and staring into the eyes of a 1,200-pound water buffalo. Mrs. Buffalo was sitting less than 10 feet away from me and there was nothing but air separating us. I recoiled and urged the driver to go faster. I don’t exactly remember much ‘team’ building with that experience either, seeing that it took me about 30 minutes to calm down from my near-death experience.
So how do you plan an event that will cater to your entire team?
According to Kate Nasser, a.k.a. ‘The People-Skills Coach’ and president of CAS, Inc., a consultancy for corporations, governments and mid-sized businesses based in Summerville, New Jersey, it is important to determine an objective before diving into a team-building activity.
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“Team building can be fun and boost morale,” she says. “It can also be designed to help address a work or communication problem.”
‘Fun’ team building
If you want your activity to strengthen bonds between employees, ask them what they want to do, suggests Nasser. “Expect that you will get diverse views, but know that they will be more engaged if the activity represents their definition of fun.”
Ropes courses and water buffalo aside, my former employer did execute one effective team-building activity. The objective was to strengthen bonds with our organization and it worked…and cost nothing.
We all crowded into a conference room and in the middle of a table sat a stack of index cards. We were instructed to tape one index card to each other’s backs and grab a pen. For the next 20 minutes, we rotated from person to person, writing something nice about them on their index card.
At the end, we all reached around and grabbed our cards to see more than 20 positive messages about ourselves. I hung mine on my bulletin board and so did many of my colleagues.
‘Problem solving’ team building
If there are problems within a team, first sit down with employees individually to find out what they would like changed, Nasser recommends.
“Hold conversations with the promise of confidentiality,” she says. “Most teamwork problems are rooted in a lack of respect for diversity or communication problems.”
If respect is the issue, Nasser recommends this exercise: Have each person bring a photo of themselves doing something they love—something that reflects who they are as a person. Then, go around the table and have each person explain why the photo makes them happy or proud. “Make sure these are not work-related photos,” she says.
Play 20 questions—after someone describes their photo, give each person around the table the opportunity to ask for more information. At the end, “people will be talking to each other like human beings—this works really well.”
Another option is to instruct each member of your team to take a personality indicator test. “I recommend the Keirsey Temperament tests,” Nasser says. “Everyone can take the test, print off the results, and bring it to a team building meeting. Then everyone can guess each other’s type. It is a very insightful exercise.”
Once finished, participants then list one or two effective ways others can communicate with them. “To make it really fun, print up a sign for your desk that alerts others on how to communicate with you. For example, mine would be ‘Give me the big picture and get to the point.’”