Knowing Your Participants
The VisualsSpeak method allows you to create effective team-building sessions, because you can easily customize the exercises for your particular group. Participants are more engaged and report better outcomes when they are doing things that relate to their particular context. Have you ever heard someone moan, “Why are we doing this?” You can avoid hearing this with some simple preparations.
There are three things to get clear about as you select your team building activities:
- Who is coming?
- Why are they coming to the session?
- What is the history with the topic?
It would be wonderful if there were a step-by-step list that guaranteed a successful outcome every time. In reality, there are many factors that contribute to success. Sometimes you have access to detailed information about the group, and other times it is more general. Occasionally you have the opportunity to work with a high-performing team focused on taking performance to new heights. More often, you will be doing team building because the team is new or struggling.
You can increase the success of your events by preparing as much as you can. Begin by having conversations with the person who has invited you or a selection of the participants.
Who is coming?
Here are some of the factors that can be helpful to ask about:
- Occupations and roles
- How long they have been together
- Existing conflict
- How they communicate (quality and format)
- Native languages
Occupations and roles
Knowing the occupations of your participants will help you decide on how to approach them with the exercises you have planned. If you are dealing with a group that is primarily linear/analytical, such as engineers, then you will want to spend some time at the beginning laying a theoretical foundation for what you have planned. Alternatively, if you are working with an HR department or a marketing group, then you are probably safe jumping right in.
It’s also important to know if the group consists of people with more or less equal job titles. If one member ranks higher than the rest, this affects the dynamics. You can talk with the leader and decide what role they want to take in the session. Group members will tend to follow the leader unless they are offered the opportunity to make another choice.
How long they have been together
If you have a new group, or a new group member, it’s important to do something that begins to build relationships and trust. Most people want to feel like they belong, so they’ll be looking for similarities they have with others. Once they start to feel comfortable, they are more apt to participate in discussions.
If you are working with a team that has known each other for a while, then you can start with more in-depth exercises because trust and rapport have already been established.
In general, if there is conflict in the group, the stated objectives become secondary. If you want to help a group achieve its objectives, deal with the conflict first. The presence of conflict invariably means there is a lack of safety and trust that lessens the chances of having respectful dialogues. Safety, trust and respect are the basic building blocks of successful interactions and outcomes.
Is this a group that has healthy processes and structures for resolving conflict? If so, you may be able to address the issue of conflict directly. If it is a group that avoids conflict, you may need to approach it indirectly by talking about respect or trust. (What is respect? What is trust?)
How they communicate
Is this a group that regularly sees each other face-to-face? Or do they use technology to work over a distance? Is there a sense they have successful communication? Or is there a sense that something isn’t quite right? The timing and patterns of a group’s communication can greatly affect all of the work of the team. If there is a potential difficulty here, you may want to begin by focusing your work in this area.
Do some participants speak the common language of the group more fluently than others? You may have to adjust your time allotment depending on the language proficiency of the participants to allow for additional explanations or to help people verbalize their thoughts. Because of the visual nature of this tool, you should find that it helps level the playing field between non-native and native speakers. Images provide an additional way for people to communicate their ideas, thus helping them to feel more apart of the group.
Why are they coming to the session?
There is a reason a group (or perhaps a group member) decided to have the team-building session, so you should know why. You should also know what that person or group expects to get out of it. The clearer you are about the desired outcome, the more successful your design will be. It’s possible there will be more than one reason, and more than one desired outcome. Try to narrow it down as much as possible, and identify what concrete indicators of the outcome(s) will be present at the end for the session to be considered a success.
Your team-building session should have a purpose. Building an effective team is not simple or quick. Be realistic about what can be accomplished. A two-hour session is not going to solve the problems of an under-performing team. It might get a new team off to a good start. Or it might begin to delve into one aspect that is affecting a team. It takes commitment from the participants and leadership to achieve success.
It is also important to be realistic about the limitations of a team-building session. The team-building process addresses group dynamics. Team building is not a solution for individual performance issues. If an individual is not doing their job or is having personal problems, it should be dealt with through appropriate channels, not by putting the team through an intervention. A particularly sticky issue arises when the individual problems rests with the leader or person who is asking for the team-building session. It’s often very helpful to get more than one perspective on the stated problem before making final commitments and plans for a session.
What is the history with the topic?
Many teams have done a variety of forms of team building in the past. Some of those experiences may not have been ideal. It’s helpful to know something about what has been tried and the level of success achieved. Since there are a variety of factors that contribute to success or failure, don’t necessarily make decisions or generalizations about which interventions to choose based on past experiences.
Individuals will respond to the exact same activity differently. Team building that works with a sales team may not work with the accounting department. Use your discretion as well as the input you can gather from team members and leaders.
Be prepared for participants to make assumptions about the session and your team-building approach, and tell them what you have done to make your session different. Ask them to help you make it more successful. Team building takes participation—invite people into the process. Whatever you do, don’t totally avoid the topic if you know the team had a bad experience. You can often dispel the anxiety and apprehension with acknowledgment. You do not have to open the topic up for complaining or revisiting in doing so, either.