team building / without the cringe

team building / without the cringe

2019, Nov 26    

Psychological safety and workplace community are crucial to being successful and fulfilled at work.

Yet so often we try to develop both of these through team building exercises that require having both in place already. And without both, most team building attempts end up being uncomfortable, alienating or exclusionary.

Think about the last team building session you were required to participate in, and ask yourself: if I did this with complete strangers, would it be fun or fulfilling?

It’s an unfortunate paradox, because this intent is valuable and we need some mechanism for building community & trust if we want our teams to thrive and succeed.

To avoid the cringe & design something meaningful, I set out with a new collection of base assumptions:

  • Everyone is acquainted with 3-4 people but doesn’t know anyone else.
  • Introverts exist - and neither they nor their comfort are less valuable than extroverts.
  • It’s valid to keep your personal & professional life separate.
  • It should be easy to choose your level of participation.
  • They should be short and take place during office hours.

I’ve worked with lots of newly forming and high-growth teams, and experimented with a series of different exercises to build community across teams & offices, and to lay the foundations for vulnerability, honesty & trust within teams. They’ve gotten significantly better since I threw away the ‘trust fall or talent show’ mindset and began anew.

I’m sharing here the best team building activities I’ve tried so far, which achieve the goals we set out - getting to know people better - while avoiding the classic team building horrors of unwanted physical contact, embarrassment, pressure to share personal things, and mandatory participation.

The all-company icebreaker: human bingo!

Objective:

Building workplace community across teams. This works well at the start of an all-company offsite (or all-department if you’re more than a few hundred people). Any situation where you’ve assembled a large group of non-strangers together and you want to energise people, encourage intermingling, and fuel future conversations.

Preparation:

Write a list of trivia you know about the people attending - nothing they’d be embarrassed to share, nothing too specific - ideally each one is true of a couple of people. Pull in help from 2-3 people who operate in different social circles to you so can supplement your facts for a broader spread.

Generate 5x5 grids with 25 randomly selected facts on each. Print one for every 2 participants. This is more fun when you have a wide spread of facts so each sheet is different.

Play:

  • Ask everyone to find a partner they don’t know well
  • Each pair grabs a sheet & a pen
  • Identify someone who meets the criteria and ask them to write their name in the box! But be warned you can only use each person once per sheet (or twice if your group is smaller than 2x the boxes)
  • The first 3 pairs to complete their sheets win; there is no prize except victory.

Here are some extra facts to pad with:

  • Doesn’t drink coffee
  • Studied something completely irrelevant to their job
  • Has lived in 3 different countries
  • Doesn’t know their star sign
  • Never had pets as a child
  • Has never broken a bone
  • Has played competitive sport to a high level
  • Is the same height as you
  • Has been skydiving
  • Has published their writing
  • Has 2 or more tattoos
  • Doesn’t have a TV
  • Has 3+ siblings
  • Has had their writing published somewhere
  • Has been quoted in the press
  • Lives within walking distance of the office
  • Has never worked in a bar or restaurant
  • Has taught a class or course
  • Has performed on stage

The organised fun at an otherwise civilised lunch or dinner: guess who!

Objective:

Workplace community. Conversation starter for mixed groups at dinner or lunch. Same purposes as above, but played in a less frenetic way! Very much opt-in.

Preparation:

Ask everyone attending to write 3 facts about themselves on an index card. (You can do this through a form of some kind if your guests aren’t together beforehand.)

Shuffle the cards and randomly allocate to each table at your dinner.

Arrange your seating plan so there’s a mix of social groups / teams / tenures / seniorities.

An example:

  • I have two pet guinea pigs
  • I play drums in a jazz band
  • I spent nine months living in West Virginia

Play:

  • Each group should try to work out who the person described on their card is
  • Find them and verify (person writes their name if true)
  • Winner is the first table to identify everyone on their cards; there is no prize except knowledge (although you can often have birthday-sparklers put in their desserts if you’re at a group dinner)

The new team getting to know you set:

Objective:

Lay foundations for psychological safety within a newly formed or previously dysfunctional team. Perfect for new managers to learn about their team.

Works best as a 90-min team meeting where people are mentally prepared for team building and laptops are off, and you can play all three phases.

Coins and dates

Objective: calibrate level of sharing. Find out a little bit about each person’s life’s outside their job.

Preparation: find a handful of coins, about 1.5x as many as there are group members.

Play:

  • Everyone picks a coin from a stack.
  • Going round the group, each person looks at the date on their coin and tells us one thing that happened in their life that year.

Low key guess who

Objective: finding out more about each other as humans.

Preparation: Each person takes two bits of paper and writes down a true but surprising about themselves on each (anonymous google form works if remote).

Play:

  • one person reads out one fact
  • people try to guess who it is
  • once the fact writer has been identified, you may ask further questions!

Sentences

Objective: self-reflect on personal working style and preferences. Get to know others’ habits & preferences to work with them better.

Preparation: get several stacks of post-its & pens (ideally all same colour). Write the bold words from the list below on separate colour post-its & stick to the wall / window. Put the sentences on a big screen.

Sentences (add your own!):

  • As a child, I wanted to grow up to be…
  • For me, a good day at work is one where…
  • I feel appreciated when…
  • I find it easiest to make a decision when I…
  • When you give me feedback please…
  • The worst part of my job is…
  • I get frustrated by…
  • When I get stressed I tend to…
  • I want to get better at…
  • You can help me most by…
  • I do my best work when…
  • In an alternate universe my career would be…

Play:

  • quietly, each person completes the sentence on a post-it
  • each sticks their sentence-end with the bold question post-it so the answers are grouped
  • When complete, go round the group: one person selects a Sentence, everyone shares their answer, discuss briefly, then move to the next Sentence-picker
  • At the end of the session, take 5mins to each share what you learnt, and what surprised you most.

What next?

Try these next time you’re in charge of a team building exercise (or share this with your manager!).

Community & trust are necessary for teams to be effective, but they aren’t sufficient.

Running these exercises helps to lay the groundwork for a disparate collection of individuals to grow into a cohesive unit - they facilitate making personal connections, feeling a sense of belonging, and having a basis to start from to feel safe within a team or group.

The other problems that we use team building to tackle - alignment, goals, interdependence, progress, culture - are significantly easier to improve or develop once people feel comfortable and safe with each other.

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