Last week I facilitated a team building workshop for one of my favorite clients. Typically, I only deliver training on customer service, but my client had a special request.
My client explained that “We need to work together, make decisions together, and communicate according to the styles of each person. In essence, we need to build a strong cohesive team.”
So I designed a unique Team-building Customer Service event built around a 12-foot pole. Here’s what I did. I showed up with no workbooks, and after 19 years of delivering workshops, training sans workbooks is a first for me.
I stood in front of the audience and pulled out my pole. And I told my group of 13 people that their task was to merely lower the stick to the floor. It sounds simple. Incredulous, the group stared at me, like, seriously?
I divided the class up into two groups and explained the rules. You’ll start with the pole waist high, you cannot lose contact with the pole at any time, and only gravity can move the pole (that is, the pole couldn’t be pushed or pulled down).
After my instruction, I stepped back and watched. Within seconds, the group learned that this exercise was anything but simple.
Voices began escalating, tempers were flaring, and some participants grew uncomfortable. At one point I heard someone call out, “Guys, it’s not about the pole. It’s about communication!”
I observed blame-placing, impatience, and some people were so focused on their portion of the pole that they weren’t acting as a team.
When tempers began to flare, I stopped the activity. After a short break, I had the team try again. But within minutes they returned to blaming and over-talking one another. So I stopped the activity a final time.
We spent the rest of the workshop discussing the exercise. I asked questions like,
What was your first thought about this activity, and what do you think of it now?
What did this teach you about communication? Working as a team?
If you were frustrated, what caused it? How did you overcome it?
Did the team stop to plan any strategy before attempting the task? Why or why not? Would that have helped?
Do you see the same pattern at your company, where you jump in too quickly without planning? Or, someone is just focused on their own job?
How can you apply what you’ve learned back at work?
And here are some of the discussion points from the team:
“We couldn’t do this because not everybody did their part.” (Bingo!)
“When you focus on keeping your fingers in contact with the pole, you miss the bigger picture of what the rest of the team is doing. Our focus has to be beyond our job, our responsibility.”
“We jumped into the exercise without asking Myra questions, and we didn’t try to strategize together. Sometimes you need to ask more questions of each other, and you may need to make a game plan before starting.”
“It’s easy to let tempers flare when things don’t go as expected. It’s easy, but not fair.”
My client’s group is not unique in how they responded to my pole exercise. Most teams struggle with this activity and emotions can fly, but the revelations and conclusions that come about through the discussion can transform team communication and effectiveness.