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Blog Post

The Key to Intentional Corporate Team Building

By Jami Dix, Client Engagement Leader

Picture this scenario: It’s Friday morning and time for the weekly team meeting. Sean shows up late. Again. Debbie sits on her laptop typing away and occasionally making eye contact or offering a short response when she feels the need. Jack barely speaks. Elizabeth dominates the conversation. The rest of the team contributes if the question is directed at them. After the meeting is over, a couple people stay back to talk about how annoying Sean is for always being late.

As the leader, you wonder: how did we get here? A couple months ago, you planned a team building event at a local restaurant with food, drinks, and lots of games to play. Everyone seemed to have a great time. So why the awkward silences today in your weekly meeting? Where are the effects of your team building event?

Often, team building events are created in the hopes of changing behavior and the way people interact with each other under the guise of a fun dinner or ropes course activity. Team building events are not usually planned to solve a social issue of whether people can have fun together, and yet their design often seems to be focused on just that. If you are looking to design an event that truly builds the team, solves an underlying issue or even if you are simply looking for people to work better together, that calls for a more intentional design.

If you want to design a team building activity that changes behaviors (such as the behaviors in the example meeting above), you must first address the most critical part of building a team: psychological safety.

Psychological safety is how safe individuals feel taking a risk in their relationships with team members or in their communication on a team. For example, it’s whether team members feel safe sharing feedback with someone face-to-face or saying “I don’t know” in a meeting. And if not, is it because they are fearful of being seen as incompetent, uninformed, naïve or flat out wrong.

So why does the topic of psychological safety seem to be so prevalent today? After two years of studying why some teams are more successful than others, Google came to the conclusion that the number one predictor of an effective team is psychological safety.

How does the idea and importance of psychological safety relate to team building? Every corporate team building activity requires someone to take a risk. It requires colleagues to share or do something in front of each other that they’ve never done before, to be vulnerable. Just like working on a team everyday does. Just doing a team building activity doesn’t address the make-up of your team and whether psychological safety is present.

Here are some steps to building psychological safety within your team using team building activities:

1. Define the purpose of your event. What’s the purpose of this team building activity? What’s the objective? How do you hope that your team will be different?

2. Leaders go first. The event will follow the tone of the leader, whether they’re intending to set the tone or not. If you’re going to schedule a team outing, be prepared to be the first one to share something personal or climb up the ropes course. Going first demonstrates that you’re not afraid to be vulnerable with your team and might even encourage the naysayers to participate too. We call it being the penguin. Penguins usually have one member of the group jump off the cliff while the rest peer over the edge to see if they get eaten in the water below. If they don’t, everyone else jumps in too. Likewise during team building events, the leader should be the penguin.

3. Know your employees. Really know them. What motivates them? Where do they feel rewarded and when do they feel threatened? The Neuroleadership Institute identified five drivers of the human social experience using the acronym SCARF which stands for status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness. Use this concept when planning your team building event.

For example, if you know certainty is important to someone, you tell them exactly what the activity is going to be and the intention behind designing it as such. If you leave it up to surprise, this person will have their guard up and not be able to fully participate because they’re unsure of what’s happening. If autonomy is important to someone, do not force them to participate. Allow them to opt in or out depending on their comfort level.

Knowing your team better will allow you to cater to the needs and allow for people to feel comfortable (and psychologically safe) not only within this activity but with you in general. Encourage your team members to learn about each other as well, sharing results of personal assessments with those they work with to spark greater growth and empathy.

4. Balance team building with a focus on their daily work as well. With the number one risk for corporate culture being an inadequate investment in your people, focus on investing in them in ways that make a lasting, daily impact. Some team building events can be centered around daily work process improvement. For example, use a Friday afternoon to stop work and fix broken processes together, a hack-a-thon of sorts. Invest in your team in the way they need to feel efficient at the work they want to do well.

Advocate for team building because it allows us to step away from our work and get to know the people on our team on a more personal, human level. And when designed with intention and purpose, team building will build a psychologically safe environment for your team to thrive.

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