Building Community Takes Time

Getting to know you,
Getting to know all about you.
Getting to like you,
Getting to hope you like me.


—Anna in The King and I


Can we ever learn enough about our friends, work colleagues, or collaborators? Probably not. That's why so many organizations engage in retreats and other teambuilding sessions: to strengthen interpersonal relationships and effectiveness.

When we think about how much time to spend on icebreakers and other teambuilding, the answer should be tied to the nature of the work and the participants doing it as I've written about previously: Given the work we must do, the timeframe for doing it, and the relationships among the people doing the work, what, if any, ice needs to be broken?

But I increasingly worry we treat building community in working groups and teams as a one-time commitment, something we frontload and relegate to the first board meeting or a staff retreat. Then we immediately move on to the real work.  But ongoing work on the quality of relationships is what makes all of the other work possible.  As Daniel Kim so elegantly outlines in his model for organizational success: the quality of relationships is the base (and basis) for the quality of thinking, actions, and results that follow.

If you share my sentiment that learning more about each other needs to be an ongoing and sustained commitment, here are three practical suggestions.

Involve participants in the design and facilitation of any activities.

Too often, team members find icebreakers being done "to them" or "on them" instead of with them.  While it is natural for a CEO, department chair, board president, or external facilitator to lead community-building activities, it in no way is a responsibility they alone own.

Why not rotate the responsibility among all the participants … letting individuals, pairs, or small groups each design and facilitate a community-building activity?  To ensure appropriate continuity among these efforts, engage all participants upfront in a discussion of what they would define as a worthwhile exercise. The simple question found on the nametag at the start of this post is the one I often use to support this exploration.  You may also find it helpful to share a one- or two-page list of resources for icebreaker and teambuilding activities. The side benefit is this helps develop everyone's presentation and facilitation skills.

Leverage the power of one single question.

I frequently facilitate sessions where participants already have good working relationships and our time to deepen them with an intentional activity is limited.  What I have discovered is that one well-crafted question can unleash significant conversation and insight, as well as deepens interpersonal connections.  Building a short list of compelling questions you can turn to is a worthwhile endeavor.  A few that have worked well for me include:
  • Tell me about an experience that significantly shaped your idea of what it means to be a good professional and/or your work ethic.
  • When have you felt most completely in sync and engaged with a group of people? Why? What made that possible?
  • A year from now, after we have spent significant time together, what would I probably have learned about you that would be beneficial for me to know right now?  See this post on creating an owner's manual for yourself for a related, but more substantive activity.
  • What is a misperception or misunderstanding of you that others sometimes have? Why do you think this perception develops?
Ensure that discussions and activities honor both introverts and extroverts.

Even the most gregarious among us can sometimes perceive icebreakers as forced fun.  But trepidation about forced disclosure is often more common among more private or introverted individuals.  When designing a community-building moment, we need to ensure it will not cause any participants to automatically shut down (see this post about challenge and support for more info).

My tactics for doing so include: letting people reflect and write responses on their own before sharing with others; letting people "opt-in" to when they share rather than always going around the room in order; modeling the way with my own responses to show an acceptable level of self-disclosure; and using formats that allow multiple one-one interactions instead of one-many when individuals feel the glare of the spotlight more.

An example of the latter is one of my current favorite activities: Fishing for Feedback.  I deal people a hand of five Go Fish cards (you can use index cards), each affixed with a random adjective.  Participants mix and mingle for about five minutes following the instructions provided.

We then reconvene and individuals share their chosen adjectives, volunteering to do when they are ready.  A brief discussion about the importance of sharing perceptions and feedback often follows.

You can download a PDF of the 80 adjectives I use here.  Simply copy the page on to 80-count return address labels, affix to cards, and you are good to go. A variation I sometimes use is to distribute a full-page of adjective stickers to each participant and then give them a few minutes to affix appropriate adjectives to others' nameplates (on front or perhaps inside where they stay hidden).  Individuals are then invited to simply react to the feedback they just received.

I hope I've convinced you that a continued emphasis on increasing the quality of relationships with our colleagues and collaborators is paramount to long-term success. If you have other approaches you have found successful, please share them in the comments.