How 9 simple questions can power up your teams

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Successful teams need a solid foundation
Successful teams need a solid foundation

Dr. Robyn Odegaard (aka Doc Robyn) is a nationally known speaker/consultant who is passionate about meeting people where they are and helping them advance to where they want to be. She graciously wrote this post to share with our readers.

A common mistake that group leaders can make is to put high-performing individuals together in a room and expect them to simply be a high-performing team. In reality, the more expertise you pack into a team, the more likely its members might be to struggle for success.

So, in addition to providing a clear charter and outlining roles and responsibilities, it is vital that you provide your team with an effective foundation. Forgoing a strong foundation at the beginning of a project will often cause teams to struggle with cohesion, conflict resolution, and problem solving.

Let's start with what team building is not.

Team building does not involve blindfolds, ladders, or rope courses. You don't have to toss water balloons, carry eggs on spoons, or pass oranges with your chin. And making everyone wear the same t-shirt or eat pizza in a group isn't going to make a team, either. These are activities you can do while you are team building, but they won't actually help you create a cohesive team.

Real team building encourages people to learn about one other: to find out who they are as people, and how they might develop trust.

Think about the people you trust in your life. Who are they? Why do you trust them? I would bet you know them really well. You know the kind of people they are, what their talents are; you know they will have your back.

Do the people on your team believe that every teammate has their back 100% of the time? You have to create that kind of conviction within the group. True, the conversations can take place during an activity such as rock climbing. But wouldn't it be better if the point of the exercise were to build a team instead of to climb to the top of a rock and hope that team building happens along the way?

Too often, we find ourselves categorizing people unfamiliar to us by their position in the world. “He's from legal,” we say.Or, “She's marketing.” “Did you talk to PR?” Referring to someone as a position instead of as a person with a name—as someone with passions and ideas—can be dehumanizing.

If you want to create a team instead of a collection of individuals, you must make sure the people in the group learn about one another. And remember, as their leader you have to be engaged in the discussions as well. If the members in your group are unable to see you as a fellow human being with complex feelings and varied interests that add up to more than your role on the job, they may also be unable to see beyond one another's work roles.

Here are examples of conversation starters that I have used with teams. When doing this exercise with your group, share your answers first. This can help group members to feel more comfortable about sharing their answers. To give you an idea on how to respond to the statements, I have included my answers in parentheses.

  • Tell us something about yourself, or something that is important to you, that no one on the team knows. (My first paying job was working on a horse ranch.)

  • What kinds of things really stress you out? (It makes me crazy when people don't do things they promised to do.)
  • What is your default response to a disagreement or conflict with someone? (I am most comfortable ignoring it and hoping it goes away. It is absolutely a learned behavior for me to follow my own advice to address issues head-on when they are small—to deal with them and move on.)
  • Most people are leaders or followers, depending on the situation. When are you most comfortable leading, and when would you prefer to follow? (I am happy to lead or to follow as long as I believe in where we are going and how we will get there.)
  • How do you respond to stress? (I get really focused and start making lists.)
  • Name something you are really good at. (I am very compassionate when someone is hurting.)
  • Name a skill you have that might surprise people. (I can juggle.)

  • What skills do you bring to this team? (My answer to this one depends on the team and the skills relevant to it.)
  • In what ways do you like to have people offer their help? (It's always great for me when people offer specific help. For example, I appreciate hearing someone say something like, “Would it be helpful for you if I ran XYZ report for you?”)

As each person responds to a question, encourage dialogue within the group. In my experience, group members enjoy sharing laughs over one anothers' responses. You might find, however, that some people might be uncomfortable answering such questions openly at first. 

A long-standing office misnomer is that we should check our personality at the door and be strictly business. The truth is that such an approach is impossible. Who we are is always going to dictate how we respond in any situation. The sooner we are willing to acknowledge our shared humanity, the sooner we will be able to achieve the most we can from our team potential.

So, if you want to have pizza or brownies while you team build—great, go for it! Doing so is perfectly acceptable, as long as you don't think of bringing food as a substitute for real team building.

Have you ever had to engage in a “team building” exercise that was more task than team? Come on, everybody has at least one horrible team building experience!

Doc Robyn holds a doctorate in psychology and is the CEO of the Champion Performance Development where she combines executive coaching, organizational development, sport psychology, and her love for public speaking to show her clients how they can achieve greater success in every aspect of their lives. She founded the Stop The Drama! campaign, authored the book, and speaks at high schools and colleges about the skills proven to produce success. She is avid in her support of highly driven performers and lives by the motto, “Worst case, I want to be neutral to everyone I meet. My goal is to make a positive difference.”

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