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Team Building. It's Way More Than Trust Falls

August 16, 2019

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Say “team building” and watch everyone turn to their planners to start finding convenient scheduling conflicts. For some, memories of late ’90s ropes courses can cause a shudder down the spine. But here’s the deal: Every company relies on teamwork. And team building—a wide variety of it—is critical to creating a team that runs on trust and works together. And it’s critical to positive work culture.

So, what does modern team building look like? First of all, it means drawing a line through the boring. No more exchanging one conference room for another with different panels and water carafes. It’s all about the new. In that regard, Paul Koulogeorge of the Forbes Communications Council suggests “team learning” take priority, so that we’re developing our people as well as our team culture.

He offers starting with a competency that team needs to develop—or that not everyone gets to experience on the day-to-day—and plan your activity around it. Think generally, like creativity or problem-solving. Koulogeorge jokes, “Odds are, no one on your team is a professional glassblower…” but the point is that with a glassblowing class, every person starts on a level playing field and learns the art, while making creative decisions together. For problem-solving, he took his team to an escape room. Both examples require a bit of on-the-fly stress management as well.

Seth Mitchell, Partner and Managing Director of 9thWonder Dallas, suggests improv lessons since it’s all about building on others’ ideas…a marker of trust and respect in professional teamwork. Improv often works off of a rule called “yes, and,” which encourages actors, comedians and participants to accept the statement or creative direction of the previous participant (the “yes”) and then expand on it (the “and”). The improv process can very much parallel what we do to sculpt a deliverable out of the brief and into a finished product, but it provides a lot of surprises and belly laughs with teammates along the way.

Sometimes, team building can transcend the standard definition of the 9-to-5 “team.” Jeni Neiswonger, Director of New Business for 9thWonder Dallas, has steadily built a networking group for female executives. Now at over 200 members, they focus on casual and collaborative exercises to build up, mentor and inspire. She suggests quick, weekly exercises that focus on sharing and positivity, such as team breathing and meditation and group journaling (with a focus on gratitude or things done well that day). She notes, “Allow vulnerability to co-exist with your strengths. If channeled properly, it IS our strength.”

We can use vulnerability—and a good deal of humor—to break down “team” a little further, by including clients. Think ice-breakers aren’t a form of team building? Think again. In our quarterly state-of-the-unions with one of our biggest clients, we’re merging creatives, account teams, marketing teams, directors, partners and C-suite execs for a full day. Opening those meetings on a level playing field so everyone feels comfortable to speak to their topic is key. Just last month we formed mixed teams (client and agency) of three to play the “Exquisite Corpse” drawing game. Each person drew a part of a body (head, torso, legs) without seeing the other parts. The pieces were put together and displayed for all to see…and laugh at. It’s more involved than introducing each other with surprising facts, but it certainly drained the initial tension, introduced an “in this together” spirit and set us up for successful collaboration.

And maybe we buried the lede a little, but vulnerability really is the unifying factor as well as the mark of success for a team-building activity of any kind. Forbes Coaches Council includes leadership participation—leaders getting vulnerable and exerting the same energy as their staff—in their 14 Hallmarks of Successful Business Team-Building Activities. Of course, the list also mentions adrenaline and a common goal. And what they’re saying makes sense. When everyone is amped up and focused on a win—without worrying about hierarchy or status—you get magical moments of realness and unbridled team spirit.

So don’t worry, axe throwing and baseball games aren’t completely off the table.

Merritt Martin

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