360Stories: How can we build trust in the workplace?

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by Marjoke Franken

I have been working on teams or with teams ever since I was 13 years old and started volunteering at school and the local coffee bar (real coffee, not that other stuff that has little to do with coffee). I’m not going to say that ever since that age I realized the importance of trust in teams, but it’s not far off. I realized at an early age that working was not only more fun, when you really like the people you’re working with, we tend to do a better job, working in a positive atmosphere!

And I know, there are a lot of critics who say: “My team works perfectly fine without us talking about all these trust-things…” And it is not that they are really wrong. I mean, there are tons of teams coming to the office each day, getting stuff done, creating value and making money for their employers. The question I ask is:

What could happen if the level of trust between these team members grew?

Could they perform even better? Could they at least come to work with an even bigger smile? Could their conflicts be resolved quicker, maybe even before they became an issue? What if they’d improve? What if it would improve the quality of their work? What if they would come up with even better ideas, sharpened by their debating and their dreaming out loud?

Think about it for a while, whenever you had to collaborate with someone:

  • When did that collaboration work well?
  • When did it work even better than before?
  • When were you and your co-workers at your best?

I bet your answers are related to how you felt toward the people you were working with.

So why don’t we invest more in the building of trust? We have a saying in the Netherlands: Trust comes on foot and leaves on horseback. It shows that trust is hard to gain but easy to lose. So if that is true, trust is also fragile. Isn’t that all the more reason to invest in it and make sure it continues to grow?

Trust falls and other workplace trust misnomers

But do we even know how to build trust in the workplace?

Trust is such a big and fuzzy word. What is it? Can you measure it, can you build it? We all know when it’s not there, and when it is, we feel it, but we cannot touch it.

Back in the 80s and 90s, a team-building activity would be something like getting in the mud together in an obstacle course, walking never-ending mazes (I know, they are supposed to end, but then we let Franky from accounting read the map and we all get lost… Familiar?) We needed to do stuff together because that would create a bond between us. Create some memories… to be honest, I’m over it all. I know a lot of people really like those kind of group-bonding activities, I never really got the point. I never saw how doing these things together would strengthen our bonds. And some scholars are with me and claim this “technique” is outdated. It may still be fun to some, but it will not create as much trust as some had hoped it would.

I was always more into going to the bar, having a beer, a coke or a wine with each other and have a few hours of laughter and storytelling. I can always tell if teams occasionally get together like that or not. There is just more sharing within these teams than those that don’t also meet outside of the office. But to be completely honest, what do teams share? “How was your weekend?” “Did you watch the game last night?” I think it is better than no small talk at all, but in the end, even teams that do share these things can have trust issues.

So, if this doesn’t work, what will?

360Stories: The potential of storytelling and trust-building

Almost a year ago, my eye fell on an advertisement of a new game called 360Stories. I don’t remember the ad, I don’t remember where I saw it or what it read, I just remember wanting to have it instantly. So one or two days later, my game was delivered to me. It was beautiful and pretty simple. A board game with a spinner in the center, two dice and a card with age-categories. Flick the spinner and throw the dice. They decide on a theme and a part of your life, and you think of a story to tell.

I’ve played it for hours with my kids. It was like they were unwrapping a little gift with every new story I told. They didn’t like sharing so much themselves (they were eight and ten at the time, perhaps not so much to share just yet) but whenever it was my turn, they were more curious than I was,  but I would find myself sharing stories with them that I had never thought of sharing before! Not that I didn’t want to share these stories, it just had never come to mind.

And this got me thinking. If I had no reason to share these stories with my kids, how many tales go untold in the office? What a waste!

So I decided to bring 360Stories to work one day. I found the perfect occasion with a relatively new team that had the opportunity of stepping out of the office for an entire day. I was really anxious because I expected to find an unwilling crowd. After all, who wants to tell personal stories at work? Well… maybe it’s my charm, maybe the story I started out with was funny enough, maybe that team likes to tell stories more than I anticipated, but after I set the example by spinning the wheel, throwing the dice and sharing an innocent story from my teens, the guy sitting on my left grabbed the dice, spun the wheel and started thinking what story to tell.

After 15 minutes or so, each of us had shared one story. I was doubting whether to do a second round, when my team handed me the dice and asked me to spin the arrow again. So I asked them: do you want to play another round, and they said: of course! So we did.

As this second round evolved, I realized that the stories suddenly were more personal. Not from everyone, but from some. Also, there were a lot more responses during the stories. People expressed their empathy while listening, there were remarks and questions, also questions from relative strangers on a personal level. And, just as important, these questions were answered, openly and honestly. I was amazed. Even from the second round of sharing stories, you could almost measure the difference in the level of trust.

Since playing this game was the first activity on that day out of the office, I could not compare how this team would perform before with how they did after playing, but I do still remember that day being very fruitful. I had a hard-working team, that collaborated really well.

A few weeks ago I visited a very playful conference where, among others, a lot of coaches like myself gathered to talk about and, more importantly, play and hack games, in order to be able to take them back to our teams.

It was an open space conference, so I proposed to do a session with 360Stories. In my proposition I explained how it was not really a game, but more a good excuse to share stories. Everyone was so excited about the game, I ran a second and even a third round the next day, giving more people a chance to participate.

With all three sessions, amazingly personal and vulnerable stories were shared. I vividly remembered how my girls were listening in awe to every new story I shared. Now I was in awe of all the precious gifts of personal stories that were being shared.

Afterwards the participants reported back into the “evening news” of the conference that this game was “mind-blowing.” That evening I was asked to break out the game again. We played for three hours, losing total track of time. The next day, I got to play again, with two different groups. I learned that people could show up in the middle of a story, and the same level of openness and vulnerability seemed to be achievable.

Vulnerability builds trust in teams

360stories sketchnote

Sharing this game with these coaches and experiencing the sharing of stories with them, made me realize that this is exactly how trust can grow rapidly. Whether you want it or not, if someone shares a tale with you, of something touching that happened earlier in her or his life, you start to build shared empathy. We care for those we can relate to and sharing memories makes that a whole lot easier. But if a spinner doesn’t point your mind to it, you just don’t think of telling your co-workers that one story about that girl on the train back when you were a teenager.

Through playing and facilitating 360Stories, I’ve realized that, normally, we want to share, we just don’t get to it! I’m still amazed when I think of the eagerness each and every participant showed me. And I’m still humbled when I think of the personal stuff that was shared. There was so much love and empathy growing within all these groups of relative strangers, just by sharing personal stories. And the most prominent thing about this game, to me is this: you are in control. No one forces you to creep through the mud, no one forces you to do corporate trust fall. No one forces you to share that really embarrassing story of that birthday party ages ago. Or the one where you caused a car accident. No. You decide. You are totally in control of what you share.

Now, if that isn’t a prerequisite to trust, what is?

So… how do we create trust in teams? I say, we play games that help us tell the stories we want to tell, but maybe haven’t realized it yet.

Let the sharing begin!

How do you cultivate trust with your team? Tell us in the comments below!

Photos property of Ferran Gomis, used with permission; The sketchnote was made by Tom Kealy of one the sessions played, used with permission.

7 thoughts on "360Stories: How can we build trust in the workplace?"

  • Wilma Mulder says:

    I made the 360 Stories boardgame hoping that people would have a nice time sharing personal stories together. There was also the underlying belief that once you look eachother in the eye, and you exchange personal stories, you’ll gain a better understanding of the other, and of yourself. You’ll feel that we have so much in common. Sharing these stories, however insignificant they may seem, just something about your bike when you were 5, or the uncle that taught you how to read, or the moment you were ashamed or very proud of yourself, or……these stories from your daily life, they are universal. I have always felt that this simple way of being together and opening up, not only with your family and friends, but also with your colleagues and even with complete strangers, can contribute to breaking the “we/they” division and will lead to more empathy.
    My heart cringes, daily, reading all the horrible stories of what people do to eachother. Being able to hurt another person is almost always rooted in a pattern of dehumanisation. Once you start to define people with certain characteristics as being odd, less worthy or just: different in a negative way, you’ve set foot on this very, very slippery road that can lead to one person or group seriously hurting another person or group. One needs to feel detached before one can swith off the empathy button.
    The bright opponent of dehumanisation is connection and, like Marjoke says, trust. When you feel good about yourself, good enough to show your personality in all its different facets, you approach the world with and open view, and you have space for other people. You don’t need to look down on others just to make yourself feel better, no, you can embrace anyone and respect eachothers differences. Sharing stories is one way to connect and build trust. I’m so happy that my 360 Stories boardgame is a useful tool for this and I’m very grateful that Marjoke took the time to write this wonderful review.
    Namasté, thank you.

  • Jan Peijen says:

    Great story! I’ve been a great fan and initiator of storytelling circles and this game serves not only as an ice-breaker, but acts as a great facilitator to boot. I use both the English and the Dutch version and each time it exceeds my expectations (if any).

  • Chaina Steinberg says:

    I think this is awesome. As someone who has worked in very diverse teams, I have been a part of lots of things to help bring people together: company retreats, outings, bbq’s etc… Sometimes, its just awkward and clearly forced.
    What I love about this game is exactly what it says, you are in control. You choose what you share! It can be as deep or as surface level as you choose.
    And another thing, listening to others seems to the most fun part of the game. In a world where people are often self-centered, even without meaning to. In conversations or sharing games, people are usually thinking of what they will say next. But with this game what you share is from a spin or roll of a dice, what you will share next is a surprise to you too! So in the moment you are just focused on what others are sharing instead of racking your brain for the most interesting or funny story.
    All around, I love board games and I can think of a million and one places I’d want to use this one at. Great read 🙂

  • Marjoke says:

    Thank you, Wilma, Jan and Chaina for your responses. I love all the different angles we all seem to find in this game. To Wilma the idea was to bring stranger together, to me it is to build trust in teams. And I love what you, Chaina mentioned about focussing, listening to others, without having to worry about your own story, since you don’t know it yet. Thank you for sharing!

  • Sacha Storz says:

    Marjoke inteoduced the game 360 at ALE 2017 in a session, I immediately ordered it. Played it with my team at our team retreat, very good experience. Thanks again! 🙂

  • Sunayana says:

    Where can I buy this board game in India (Bengaluru). I could not find it on amazon.in/ flipkart.com

  • Marjoke Franken says:

    Hello Sunayana!
    How wonderful that you are interested in purchasing a copy of the game. I will ask Wilma, the creator of the game if it’s possible to ship to India!

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