My title sounds like the start of a joke, but the way we behave says we take it seriously.
The email comes in. Subject: Offsite Team Building. Your heart jumps a bit. Hooray! A day out of the office! But…the unpredictable nature of team building.
Typically team bonding exercises are intended to expose otherwise unseen talents. There is an entire industry that has been created around getting coworkers into new spaces, giving them new activities to collaborate on, and seeing what happens. You see creatives, known for their “out there” thoughts, organizing details usually left to analysts. Project managers, the detail-oriented people, offer big ideas that kick-start the activity. Management stands to the side, contrary to their typical position, giving others room to rise to the occasion. And all this takes place outside the day-in-day-out office environment.
While technology has made flex work possible, mandatory even, it has also begun to blur the lines between work and life. The perks of a work gym are great for releasing tension, be it from work or home. When an office friend hops on the treadmill next to you, conversation flows and it’s hard to discern the expectations of your workout chatter. Likewise, it’s easy to want to ask about a coworker’s sick relative after working on a project through Skype because of the illness.
These blurred lines between work and home create what may be a false permission to discuss the personal issues of a coworkers life.
Team building creates an implied safe space. The team is motivated to rise to the challenges of the new task without the fear of failure. Playing roulette with your boss and winning builds rapport at a Monte Carlo lunch but taking a risk on a work project is like betting millions of dollars of company money and jeopardizing the respect of your boss. It’s relatively easy to play with “fun” money, but when the dollars are real, so are the consequences.
Same goes for your office workout partner. The conversation could be taking place simply because you are there or because a late night at the office hasn’t offered time for personal reflection. With you there, the conversation feels safe.
Team building exercises are intended to expose otherwise unseen talents. Who knew that crazy creative has the heart of a project manager? Who knew that the manager of operations who knows where to find a pin in a warehouse needs help to pull together an exploratory team for a nature walk?
While it’s possible to glean understanding of a person via the blurred lines of our work-home lives, it is not equally possible to determine what a person is willing to give to the job.
The gym chat may take place before an accounting department meeting to plan a new, cross-functional campaign. The vent comes from issues of being the PTA treasurer at a child’s school. While it’s understandable to make the connection between PTA treasurer and a need for cross-department involvement for an accounting project, it cannot be assumed that the person wants to be assigned to an accounting campaign. Maybe they’re venting on that treadmill because they aren’t confident in what they are doing with the PTA. Maybe they are looking for your advice because they feel you might know more than they do.
You are not in employee mode when you’re at home and, conversely, home concerns are not fully impacted by work. Remember this when you’re looking to develop teams. Respect that a person chose their job for a reason and, while they may appreciate the recognition of their other talents, they may not be looking to incorporate them outside of the safe space in which they shared them with you. For example, the coworker who needed to work from home to help with a sick relative could be looking forward to being back in the office, allowing someone else to fill the needs of the family member. Asking him to take a position that offers more work-from-home time is exactly what he doesn’t want.
On the other side, do not look over the person who, for personal reasons, say being a newlywed, you might see as not wanting to get involved. That newlywed may be planning a family and looking for the chance to invest in a few large projects or travel for work before childproofing their life.
Recognizing unique talents and being appreciative, supportive even, of out of office contributions and concerns is a sign of quality leadership. That recognition, however should not be mistaken for a change in position, being included or excluded. We are more able than ever to overlap our home self and our work self. As the saying goes, just because you can doesn’t mean you should. When considering unseen talents of your team, look for the qualities you’ve seen in safe spaces, but do not force them. You may intend to encourage, but understand if the person wants to keep a divide in the work-life balance.
- Team building experiences and personal conversations that take place outside the office space should be assumed to be in a safe space, free of assumption and judgment. The lines of work and home have become blurred creating possible uncertainty about why someone is sharing other facets of their personality and ability.
- What is done in safe spaces cannot be taken as confirmation of someone wanting to do more or less in their role.
- Clear the uncertainty by with communication. Be specific about the reason(s) you recognize the person as able to do more or focus better, it is a great compliment. However, give them the opportunity to decline your offer without taking the decision personally.