Employees are under increased stress in the current economic climate, taking on the work of laid-off colleagues and worrying about their own job prospects. When companies plan employee gatherings, they are looking for ways to improve team spirit and communication.
Businesses can still work with facilitators who will lead them in skits or ask them to fall backward, trustingly, into each others’ arms. But if those methods don’t fit the bill, there is an array of other options available.
“We put on our Web site that our target [market] is highly functioning teams that want to move to the next level,” says Ann Romberg, principal at Wisdom Horse Coaching in Minneapolis, an organization that offers programs for “transforming the workplace” using “equine-guided education.” “Of course, then there are people who say,
‘Well, we’re not quite highly functioning, but could you help us anyway?’” Romberg says. “We see communication issues, we see trust issues, we see lack of role clarity, we see lack of vision from a leader. We see unsureness in the [work] environment, especially in this day and age with change. We may see stress in the team because they’ve been downsized, and they have not enough people to do the work.”
In addition to overworked, insecure employees, many companies are also experiencing teamwork issues because of geographic disconnects. “One thing I’m seeing a lot more of is companies that have a lot of folks working at home,” says Jeff Nelson, groups coordinator at Vertical Endeavors in St. Paul, a climbing-wall facility that offers team activities. “Even though they’ve been working with the same people for two or three years, maybe longer, they may never have actually met each other before.”
Susie Tucker, director of culinary events at Cooks of Crocus Hill in St. Paul, agrees. Work teams come to Cooks to do team building based around food preparation. “Some groups who come here really know each other, but some groups don’t know each other at all, and they’re looking to build relationships,” she says. “A lot of times, we have groups who only see each other four times a year because they work all over the U.S. or the world. [A team-building exercise] is a really good time not only to learn about each other on a professional level—how they can relate to each other, communicate better, and become more efficient in the projects and the tasks at hand—but also to learn about each other on a personal level. If they understand each other better personally, they can do a bang-up job in the workplace as well, because relationships are so key.?
Into the Fire
For work groups where there are “too many cooks in the kitchen”—or, for that matter, where the cooks can’t quite agree on the recipe—Cooks of Crocus Hill offers culinary team-building exercises that turn food metaphors into business lessons. Some of the activities have to do with problem solving in a group environment; others focus on communication and leadership.
Tucker says her company created these workshops to meet customer demand. Some clients were using the facility as a site for multi-day meetings, then booking fun events in the kitchen to blow off steam afterward. But they began to ask if they could incorporate kitchen challenges into their meetings, so Cooks designed several chef-led “activated learning experiences” for groups to choose from.
“We provide all the recipes, and the challenge itself will really depend on the style and the type of activated learning that you had selected prior to coming,” Tucker explains. “For example, the communication challenge is called ‘Listening to the Sizzle.’ To start, each group works with a different style of communication. For example, in one group, only one person can have the recipe, and they have to verbally communicate to everybody else in the group. Nobody else can read it. In another group, maybe everybody can see the recipe but nobody can talk. Then at a midway point [in the cooking challenge], groups have to switch styles of communication. You get the opportunity to find out who works best with each style of communication. It’s really fun to see who rises to the top in different situations.”
Why food? Tucker says food is enjoyable and inclusive, but it’s also complex and challenging enough to teach useful lessons. Participants benefit by assessing their own and their team members’ strengths and weaknesses, and by deciding how best to break down multi-part tasks.
“Getting the food on the table to be served is the end result that everybody’s working toward, but there’s so much that happens in order to get there,” she says. “It’s a lot of fun for people to dig in, whether they’re a seasoned cook or someone completely new to the kitchen.”
A Horse, Of Course
Everyone knows there’s a difference between what people do and say, and what they actually feel inside. It doesn’t mean they’re lying, necessarily. It may mean they aren’t communicating effectively, or that they lack confidence, or that they aren’t fully committed to a course of action. These inconsistencies are part of the human condition, but sometimes they can compromise teamwork in the work environment.
Enter the equine. Horses, Ann Romberg says, are prey animals, so they are extremely attuned to their surroundings. They’re more likely than we are to pay attention to the body language of those around them. We humans may sense that something’s “off,” but decide that it is irrational to act on that hunch. A horse, meanwhile, will always act based on those instincts.
Wisdom Horse Coaching offers team-building exercises that take advantage of this difference between species. For example, if a group is trying to shepherd a project to completion, Romberg might create an activity in which the goal is to move a horse over a jump.
“What you see is the dynamic,” Romberg explains. “Horses want to be with a team that has strong leadership. If there’s not a synchronicity in the team, they won’t go. We’ve had teams that make really great progress, and then they may get the horse all the way to the jump and the horse stops. So they get to see where in the project they’re stuck, where in the project their team falls apart, and what kind of leadership is needed to bring the team back together.”
Another time, she says, a team was able to convince the horse to jump, but then immediately ran off to celebrate, leaving the horse standing all alone. This bizarre result triggered a discussion about the team’s relationship with the project and the client. Romberg says almost every group responds to working with horses, even if they start out skeptical.
“There’s a bit of a learning process,” Romberg says. “Some people are totally engaged in the metaphors right away. Other people need a little time to become more self-aware, to realize, ‘Okay, what I just thought was what the horse just reacted to.’”New Heights
Team-building exercises almost always strive to take participants out of their usual element. That’s an advantage for indoor rock-climbing facility Vertical Endeavors, Nelson says. “Climbing is something that a lot of people have never done before,” he says. “It takes them out of their comfort zone. They’re focused on climbing. Meanwhile, we’re able to do a sleight-of-hand type of thing. They’re paying attention to all these other things, so we’re able to almost sneak in the team-building aspect.”
Nelson says Vertical Endeavors offers both predesigned and custom programs. For example, in order to work on communication, a group might don blindfolds, grab a climbing rope, and work together to form a shape, such as a triangle or a heart. “They’re not able to see, so they have to communicate with each other,” he says. “Often, you have one or two people who are the vocal ones, and they kind of take over. The quieter people might have just as good of ideas, but because they’re quieter, their information doesn’t get put out there. Another thing that happens sometimes is that everybody tries to talk at once, and then it just becomes a mess and they never get anywhere.”
The facilitators of the exercise work with participants to discuss what they’ve learned and how it applies to the workplace.
For the daring, Vertical Endeavors sets up partnered climbs, where one person scales the rock face and another helps navigate from the ground. The routes are like puzzles, so after a few tries, the partners are able to build on each other’s experience and climb farther than before.
Nelson advises companies to ponder the personalities of their employees before signing up. Some would rather talk and play games than do anything too athletic, and Vertical Endeavors can accommodate that.
It’s increasingly popular for companies to combine team building with a service project. Peter Bailey, senior vice president of organizational development at the Prouty Project, a leadership development and consulting firm in Eden Prairie, says the best of these “twofers” involve teamwork between two groups that learn from each other.
“I think we need to pick a situation where the recipients of the service project feel good as co-deliverers somehow,” he says. “Either they’re engaged in teaching you something, or they’re engaged in doing it for others, side by side with you.”
In one such exercise, Bailey introduced the leadership team of a large corporation to a group of new Somali immigrants who were learning to speak English and interview for jobs. “Our executives became their test interviewers,” he says. “And then the Somali folks got a chance to practice, like a final exam, in front of CFOs and CEOs. It was a great opportunity for both sides.”
Kate Loe, corporate relations specialist at Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity, says Habitat also offers volunteer opportunities that can teach valuable lessons about communication and teamwork. Sometimes departments work on a homebuilding project as a group; other times, executives invite people from different departments to work together and get to know each other better.
Loe says corporations often find that volunteering with Habitat breaks down hierarchical boundaries and gives employees new respect for each other’s abilities. “We had some [executives] out on the build site, and they had never picked up a hammer before. And then alongside them, we had some low-level employees who were really skilled in construction. So those low-level employees were the leads on that build site, and they were telling the executives what to do,” Loe says. “It’s these role reversals that I love hearing about—where they get to work together and see strengths in each other that they would never see in their day-to-day lives.
Finding the Pain Points
It’s not always easy to guess what type of team-building solution will produce the best results. A firm such as the Prouty Project can help. Peter Bailey says his firm works as an intermediary between clients and team-building event providers, matching companies with the activities that will challenge employees. Sometimes, Prouty Project staffers facilitate the activities themselves, drawing on methodologies as diverse as Myers-Briggs personality typing and books such as Blue Ocean Strategy.
“Depending on the needs and objectives of the client, we’re going to build and create a transformational learning environment that’s going to most encourage their development, both on the individual as well as a team level,” Bailey says. “We palpate for pain, like a doctor might. We try to find out: Is it an alignment issue? Is it a communication issue? Is it a fear and lack of trust issue because of the economy and people being laid off? What are the key factors that are causing the problems? We then bring in the appropriate leadership content that would best address how to narrow that gap.”
Bailey has matched his clients with equine-based training, with actors from the Guthrie Theater, with a speed-painter named Jao. He values having a diversity of options. If all you have is a hammer, he says, every problem looks like a nail. He prefers to have an entire toolbox to suit companies’ many and varied team issues.
Yet sometimes the classic methods are the right ones. Every year, the Prouty Project works with the Minneapolis Principals’ Academy. These are people with stressful, challenging jobs, who need to get to know each other and realize the value of their own internal resources. Bailey takes them on a ropes course.
“You put them in a situation where they have to depend on each other,” he says. “They’re 35 feet in the air, [walking on a pair of cables that] get farther apart as they walk. Having watched other people try and fall, they know the only way they can do this well is to stare into each other’s eyes, lock their arms, and arch their backs and push, matching the force the other person is giving. People come down hugging. It’s like, ‘Wow.’”