Team Building (Without Trust Falls)

I have a confession to make. Once upon a time, I used to look forward to ropes courses. I’m not sure if this is unusual, but for some reason, my education and early career involved lots and lots of ropes courses. 

Have you ever done one? The objective is to learn about yourself and your team by overcoming completely arbitrary challenges, mostly suspended on or by cables, wearing a helmet and in the woods. You usually start with simple exercises like trying to remember everyone’s middle name or what they’d bring to a picnic. But before too long you’re carrying your executive director piggyback style across a tightrope nine feet in the air.

Supposedly these manufactured challenges help us to escape our daily drudgery and build attachments to our team members, learning how to best communicate through synthetic stress. As a desk-trapped Millenial with ADHD, I was just so happy to be outside and talking. But then, I participated in one of the worst teambuilding exercises possible and I was cured. I no longer longed for the great outdoors.

At City of Light, our team consists of five members. We are certainly not perfect, but our team is high performing even while under stress and we enjoy the time we spend working most days.  But we have never – nay, not even once! – considered a ropes course to bring us closer.  Instead of manufacturing crises, we work towards a management of our everyday challenges that helps our team to gel and communicate well. Here are just a few ways to foster a team that builds itself without having to buy any helmets, ropes, or other gear.   

1.     Be Authentic

The whole point of a trust fall or a ropes course is to teach your team that they can trust one another. But I have a simpler method of establishing trust: Be yourself. For a long time, work culture has meant hiding a bit of your personality. To be a professional, you needed to be respected, and to be respected you needed to appear strong. So having interests outside of work, worrying about a deadline, or feeling concerned about a sick kid at home had no place in the office. 

When I worked in government, the staff was imprisoned by a short list of conversation-appropriate topics: free food in the break room, sports, weather, vague weekend details, and retirement dates.  It was difficult to feel truly known or fully human with such a short list of topics. While no one can say what authentic will look like for your comfort level, being yourself in your work place will help your team members to trust you and feel comfortable being themselves.

This helps for a few reasons. When your team feels they know you, they are more likely to be comfortable being known. When you feel you know someone, you can give him or her feedback more appropriately. When you know about the sick kid at home, you can easily understand why someone seemed distracted at that last meeting. And while it may be hard at first to not always wear a game face, in the end, it is much less exhausting and even has health benefits.

2.     Spend Time

Eating lunch together regularly is a part of our team culture. This is a natural time for us to chat about the personal (How’s the pregnancy going? How’s the new apartment?) or things that may have frustrated or excited us about the work (Wow, that client was inappropriate! I’m so thrilled so-and-so was funded!). Naturally, not every single time we sit down is ground breaking. I once heard the saying, “You can’t have quality time without quantity time.” So do this regularly. We chose eating lunch because everyone should do it.  The danger in choosing something like a football poll or a weight loss competition is that it excludes by its very nature. It’s a good idea to strategize time together that naturally includes everyone.

3.     Value Strengths

Knowing myself well, I understand that I function well in a crisis, seeing the big picture in a way others may not, and that I am able to creatively examine a problem. Because of this productivity style, I may struggle with organizing the mundane. Without help, I will never complete the simple tasks that maintain a business day-to-day and I will miss critical details. I’m grateful to have built a team with very different skills than I have.  And it’s really, really important that I celebrate my teams strengths and the unique way we work together. This means affirming accomplishments and asserting the value of a team member’s contributions even when they are not present. Valuing strengths also means assigning work according to skillset and providing growth opportunities so that no team member ever feels stagnant. It’s also vital to give space in meetings for team members to offer feedback on ideas-even on your own ideas- because their different skillset and perspective will help keep your team growing and on-course. It may be worth doing DISC personality assessments or Strength Builder assessments as a team, but even if this isn’t possible right now, working to listen and understand your team is vital.