Build familiarity and safety to build stronger teams     

Most organizations host team-building events now and then. Karaoke sessions, paint-ball outings, outdoor games, etc. are the norm. While these activities are fun, do they really help build teams? A bit of digging, and you’ll know the answer is no.

Why? Most team-building activities are aimed at generating high energy. That is necessary, yes. But it ends up catering to a certain set of people who enjoy that extroversion and have the ability to participate. Those who don’t, feel less motivated and disengaged. It is a tricky place to be in, given that a lot is invested in such events. So, the question to start with:

What really is team building about? It is about building connections between team members, where conversations can get deeper, and people can get out of their comfort zones to take more risks – be it professional or emotional – within their teams.

What will help make this happen? Building familiarity. If left to our own devices, whom would we gravitate more towards in a group? People we already know or are familiar with. This is where conversations or relationships begin, because people feel safe and trust each other. So, the goal of team building should then be to create this kind of safety across the team, so people eventually feel comfortable enough to have difficult conversations, express their feelings, share disagreements, or even make mistakes. And these factors amplify a team’s performance significantly.

How to build familiarity and safety? Ask people questions, whose answers allow for deeper self-disclosure. Note, that maybe not everyone needs to answer such questions. Instead, assess which work relationships need a foundation of deeper connections for better performance. And then, design a set of questions to facilitate responses, which are increasingly personal. For example:

  • What would constitute a perfect day for you?
  • What do you value most in friendship?
  • Would you like to be famous? Why and for what?

Such questions, as stated by psychologist Arthur Aaron, have proved to increase interpersonal intimacy between people. Look at the end of the research paper to find a list of the famous 36 questions he created.

Where is all this going? The study by Dr Aaron points to the fact that when people practice more self-disclosure, over time, they generally tend to talk more, and build a practice of sharing more about what they think. In the work context, this means sharing concerns, feedback, brainstorming better, and even telling each other when something is not working, be it the other person’s way of handling projects, communication style, or something personal. This is where magic happens, and teams get stronger.

In all this, remember, that not everyone is okay to share personal stories or thoughts. Rapid personal disclosure can be pretty risky. So lean towards a slower pace and scaffold questions to ensure safety.

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