Imagine that a work colleague you’ve only seen in the hall walks up to you and asks, “If you could invite anyone in the world to dinner, who would it be?” Would you feel comfortable answering? For most people, the answer is an easy yes. The question is relatively benign, and it wouldn’t be difficult to come up with an answer, even if you had to give it a little thought first.

Now imagine that same co-worker walks up to you and invites you to go rock climbing. Assuming you’d never spoken to this person other than passing hellos, would you join the co-worker on a mountain or entrust your life to their climbing skills? Not likely.

Choosing the right team-building activity is essential for ensuring that your exercises are productive. Forcing people into uncomfortable situations because “that’s the way it’s always been done,” is more likely to result in a bigger gap in communication and camaraderie than choosing an activity that offers flexibility and encourages emotional and psychological connection. 

And those emotional and psychological connections are important. The Harvard Business Review posted the results of a two-year study that showed high performing teams all have one thing in common: a feeling of psychological safety. Members of the team were comfortable making decisions because they weren’t afraid of being ostracized or punished for making a mistake. 

According to an article in Psychology Today, two of the five fears all humans have in common include loss of autonomy (being imprisoned or controlled by circumstances) and ego-death (humiliation and shame). 

You can help reduce those fears in the workplace by building an environment where employees feel comfortable socially and psychologically. How do you build such an environment? Read on for some of our favorite effective team-building exercises:

  1. Icebreaker Shirts 

Instead of dragging the teams through physical challenges, try a softer approach. Consider opening your team building event with a cocktail party or luncheon. Invite each person to wear a customized ME+iD t-shirt and challenge everyone to talk to five or more people they don’t know well. The t-shirts act as a natural icebreaker and provide a quick way for people to start a conversation. The low-pressure technique may also help some teammates find others with common interests in the group.

A quick note for those unfamiliar with ME+iD tees: ME+iD tees display a hobby or interest in large letters (bikes, horses, foodie, movies, vegan etc.) sitting over the question “What’s your thing?” The shirt invites people to strike up a conversation, pressure free. Before your event, simply invite your employees to each choose a shirt that identifies something they are passionate about. If they don’t see something they want, they can customize their own. 

  1. The 36 Questions

In the study “The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness,” psychologist Arthur Aaron determined that a series of 36 questions could help foster a quicker bond (or personal intimacy), even between strangers. While this study has been used to help people identify potential romantic partners, the questions are not romantic in nature and lend themselves to a great team-building event. 

The questions start easy (such as “Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?”) and then get tougher as the group works their way through the list. The final question asks each person to share a personal problem and ask their partner for advice on how to handle it. 

The theory behind Aaron’s study is that creating an environment of mutual vulnerability can allow two people (even strangers) to build a close relationship quickly because both parties have to trust their partner, at least a little, during the exercise. 

See the appendix of the full study for the list of questions.

  1. Two Truths and a Lie 

In this activity each person tells two true things about themselves and one lie. The rest of the group has to guess which statement is untrue. Challenge team members to be open with their truths and to talk about things people might not know about them. 

Creating a team environment that offers challenges—but doesn’t feel scary or threatening—helps teams work together better. Positive emotion makes it easier for people to solve problems with more open communication and ideas.

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