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:
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
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.