Team Building Tips

What does the body have to do with team building?

Traditionally a lot of team building exercises, like the kind I led in outdoor education for some years, involve close touch, movement and physical contact – helping people get through hoops, untying “human-knots”, giant walking planks, lifting stuff, getting across assault courses (the army like this one), etc. Most of us have done this kind of team building, some of it was fun and some of worked. So what is it about physical activities that involve touch, coordinated movement and physical proximity – that brings people together? Well, this is the basic way human being build trust and coordinate as a group. This is why in every culture in the world has dancing is a part of courtship and marriage rituals, and also why armies use marching and drilling. When people really have to get on –to raise children or fight a war the coordinated body movement is used. My favourite combination of dance and warrior coordination is the Maori Hakka – famously used in by the world’s most successful rugby football team – the All Blacks -to build a team sense and intimidate opponents. Other Maori dances were traditionally used in other community activities such as welcoming visitors, typical of many tribal cultures where group movement is an integral part of life. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived in intimate proximity with their “team” with life and death at stake, so it is perhaps no surprise that such activities evolved. Coordinating over time through language – also important and part of my work – comes after this basic, primal physical communication.

So how does this apply to office life today? Does traditional physical team building hold the answer? Yes and no. This type of work is usually enjoyable and can be a great way to reveal people’s characters, however does the team feeling generated last and transfer back to regular office life? Sadly often not. One necessity that is missing in this type of team building is reoccurring practices, as real change and learning takes sustained effort over time. Just like learning a language, musical instrument or sport, practice is key, even if this is a pill the modern world doesn’t want to swallow, with our industry perpetuating the myth of quick results that last. Malcolm Gladwell has recently picked up on this. Now, modern office workers are unlikely to start dancing a Hakka together, and touch is a scary issue in the modern law-suit laden world – so what are the practices that they can do?
Here’s some cheap, time-efficient team building tips:
  • Learn some simple non-athletic coordination practices (pictured above) from Integration Training (naturally) or another leader in embodied learning (I recommend the Strozzi Institute in CA, USA).
  • Encourage an office culture where touch is acceptable. This need not be excessively “touchy-feely” but simply shaking hands on entering and leaving the office .

  • Be careful with e-mail and other disembodied means for communication – these are quicker but FAR worse for building trust and relationship than older methods. Pick up the phone when you can, use Skype and other visual means and take advantage of the fact if you can still walk down the hall to see your colleagues. Travelling to see important clients is still worth the time and expense. My rule of thumb is if something is complicated or emotionally laden, avoid e-mail.
  • Encourage the use of smileys 🙂 the reason these have become popular amongst tech-savvy teenagers is not a lack of maturity but that they convey tone (i.e. embodied emotion) which not only makes communication more efficient but also builds relationship. We use computers and we are not computers. For improved work relationships (and therefore improved productivity) social networking can be used to support relationships (“Hi Bob, look at these pics from the conference, what a blast!”) rather than instead of embodied connections.
  • Arrange activities regularly outside the office that require physical proximity and interaction – drinks in a busy Friday night pub after work is a favourite team building tip for several British organisations I’ve worked with! Encourage out of office psychical activities and sports. Less athletic team sports with an emphasis on fun are more inclusive and best for team-building.
  • Eating together is perhaps the oldest and most powerful team building tip – think of some healthy and dysfunctional families you know and ask them if they share dinner together. You can spare 3o minutes for lunch as a team.
  • Have meetings while walking. Walking not only stimulates ideas and keeps you healthy for maximum work efficiency, but the act of walking with someone helps you coordinate as you literally fall into step. If team members are “stuck” on a problem or in conflict this is particularly useful. Meetings will be quicker and more productive.
  • Consider a short daily in-office group stretch, yoga or tai chi session – Japanese companies have been doing this for years as much as a way to coordinate as for health.
Don’t trust me on any of these team building tips, try them and see for yourself – they are all low financial and time costs. In the modern world of geographically distributed virtual teams much natural team building disappears and I would suggest there are some hidden costs to this way of working in terms of efficiency, morale and team spirit. One new-media CEO I know here in Brighton England says that programmers working on a project are several times more productive when sat next to each other than when in separate rooms. This supports the evidence gathered by studies such as those reported in Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence in the Workplace, showing that cohesive teams are several times more efficient than groups who don’t get on.
The case for team building is persuasive, especially when times are tough and productivity matters, and an understanding of the body is necessary for effective team building.
Business So What: team building happens through bodies