There are many things that bind teams beyond dictated structure or the pursuit of a common goal. Two of the most powerful binding agents I've been part of are shared experiences and simply getting to know your team beyond the day to day grind of work.
Shared experiences run deep. It's the reasons you're still close with some of your childhood friends that you probably otherwise would have severed ties with. The most blatant example of this in my life was in the military. Whether in boot camp, or being forward deployed, the shared experiences of stress, exhaustion, failure, success, and happiness over these years formed some of the strongest bonds in my life. Those bonds go beyond the mission. Your drive for success is more to ensure the people to your left and right succeed. That's the power that shared experiences can wield.
Some of that comes natural in a professional setting. After working at a company for years alongside the same coworkers, you will accumulate shared experiences. But how do you reap those same benefits on a shorter timeline? How do you create opportunities for shared experiences to help build a stronger team? One way leaders do this is by creating opportunities for your team to go through an experience together. This can be a volunteer event, an all day educational summit, a fantasy football league, or a book club. All these experiences push interactions from mandatory to voluntary, and work to strengthen your team's bond on a personal level. One word of caution, when selecting a curated experience, ensure it's one that your team would support. Your goal here is garnering a high level of team engagement, not to check a box to say you did something together. The best way to identify what you should sign your team up for is to ensure you connect it with what matters to them, which leads us to the second most powerful binding agent.
The second most powerful, and often overlooked, way to bind a team is getting to know your team beyond the day to day grind of work. These are the small empathetic discussions, concerns or inquiries that build trust and show you care. The power of this resides in the shadow of a shared experience. Though we all live our own unique lives, with our own unique problems, we do share much more than we let on. Everyone with kids has some dinner battle they take on most nights, everyone with pets has a lingering thought in the back of their mind of how they're doing, and everyone is trying to balance what they want and what they can afford.
There is a skill in balancing the respect of someone's privacy and getting to know them deeper as a person. One way is to ask more follow up questions when they're giving you insight to their personal life, instead of waiting to speak. Another is to work to remember, and link together these small glimpses of their life that they're sharing with you. This runs deeper than a shared affinity for the local sports team (though that's always a great ice breaker). For example, when you're heading out on a Friday and a teammate indicates they're going camping this weekend, they've just opened up a great prospective conversation for Monday morning. "How was camping?", "Where did you end up going?, "What did you end up eating?", "Who all did you end up going with?". I'm not saying treat this like 20 questions but they're opening a window into their life, so take a peek. Maybe you don't like camping, and want nothing to do with camping. That's alright! Keep walking through the doors of conversation when they open them, and look for shared affinities. The goal here is to try to stitch together your common experiences as well as your shared past. Taking your two parallel lives, and finding opportunities to bridge the two experiences. This will work to strengthen your relationship beyond the x's and o's of work, and ideally identify value trends throughout your team to leverage into shared experiences.
I ask two things of you this week
Think up an idea for a curated shared experience for you team, and float by a couple teammates in a one-on-one setting. You don't have to go as drastic as skydiving, but be a little more creative then a happy hour. Some of us look forward to dinner with our families or don't drink. Be creative. I believe in you :)
The next time someone on your team opens up a window to their life, don't ignore it and move on to your life. Ask a couple follow up questions to understand how they're approaching the experience, and show interest. Then make an effort to remember the names they bring up, locations, hobbies or whatever. They're telling you "this is what matters to me". You should be flattered they're being so open with you.
You don't have to be the designated "leader" of the team to create this atmosphere or build a strong team. You just need the courage to do something about it. To have the vulnerability to ask questions and propose ideas to the team. Some ideas will fail, some will work, and at the end of it all hopefully you land more W's than L's and as a result you've built a stronger team.
Note: All of the opinions expressed in this article are my own, and are not a reflection of the viewpoint of my employer. #leadyourcareer