A course in communication Featured

7:00pm EDT November 25, 2008
Darryl Greene, Executive Director of Performance and Service Improvement, Cleveland Clinic. Darryl Greene, Executive Director of Performance and Service Improvement, Cleveland Clinic.

Darryl Greene’s search for a team-building exercise landed him here: helmeted and harnessed, staring straight up at a wooden tower that soared more than 40 feet above him.

Greene wanted to unite Cleveland Clinic employees who were unfamiliar with each other before they began working together regularly. So he took more than a dozen of them to the high ropes course at Camp Cheerful, the Achievement Centers for Children’s Strongsville location. They left as a cohesive team that communicates more freely and, as a result, works together more efficiently.

To decide whether a similar activity could patch gaps in your team’s communication, look for indicators that employees aren’t meshing as well as they could, such as employees asking you to referee instead of talking to each other directly or refusing help from another coworker, says Greene, executive director of performance and service improvement for Cleveland Clinic.

“If you hear in conversation where people are dismissive or belittling or emote less of a regard for the skills of another, there’s an opportunity,” he says.

There’s also an opportunity for team building if you’re taking on a big task and you need to work closely with people and learn to trust them.

To promote team building, Greene says you should seek out an activity in which everyone has the same goal, rather than pitting people against each other. With activities such as paintball or video games, which Greene also considered doing, “you’re going to have too much individual activity,” he says. “Shooting each other with paintballs isn’t exactly a way of forming unity.”

On the other hand, with the high ropes course, employees have to talk to each other because they are responsible for their co-workers’ success. For example, in one activity, each employee must lead a blindfolded partner to the top of the tower.

“The course has a team dynamic in terms of creating unity,” Greene says. “We’re all trying to accomplish the same thing, but we have different skill sets to get there.”

The physical factor may intimidate some employees, but challenging them in nonwork-related tasks can help bond employees on a social level beyond the conference room.

“What we saw happen is their peers help talk them through it,” he says, explaining how employees encouraged a woman with a fear of heights. “There was encouragement and empathy in the dialogue.”

After the experience, debrief your employees to relate the physical lessons to an office setting. Encourage them to push colleagues toward goals at work like they cheered them on through the activity. And remind them to trust co-workers withtheir input like they trusted them for guidance on the course.

“You had people say, ‘I really didn’t know what you were about, but I could see where I can call you to work on things, because I think we could solve some things together,’” Greene says of his debriefing session.

Greene has seen communication open up in his office since completing the course a year ago. Employees who wouldn’t even discuss work-related issues are now chatting socially.

“People are giving feedback more often, and people are listening to that feedback because they trust the individual enough to say, ‘I value your opinion,’” he says.

Greene suggests repeating this type of activity annually or more often, like when new employees are hired or you notice problems in the office. And in between sessions, continue to reference the experience as a motivator.

“Now you can talk to people in the context of high ropes,” Greene says. “‘This is one of those high rope events. ... You say, ‘It’s a big goal. It’s going to take you awhile to get up there. There are alternative paths, and if you don’t get there on your own, someone else is going to help you.’”

HOW TO REACH: Cleveland Clinic, (800) 223-2273 or my.clevelandclinic.org

An exercise in teamwork

Companies seeking a team-work overhaul come to Tim Fox, director of recreational services for Achievement Centers for Children, where he customizes activities for different facets of group development.

He says the key to development is emphasizing collectivity, so he assigns goals that can’t be accomplished individually.

“If you can put your full trust into your partner, you can accomplish the goal and your limits can get broader,” he says. “Otherwise, you may only end up 50 percent to where you truly can be.”

If everyone has a specific role, people will be less likely to attempt success alone.

“It’s not just the communication [that’s important in an activity,]” Fox says. “It’s the support. It’s the encouragement. It’s the whole team aspect of identifying where everybody’s roles are.”

With the high ropes course, not everyone has to reach the top for the whole team to succeed. The climbers wouldn’t get very high, for example, without both physical and verbal support from teammates on the ground.

And discovering each other’s roles in the team-building exercises will help employees locate their prime positions in business projects, Fox says.

“It really comes down to a better understanding of each other,” he says, “which is then related into their approach with the entire team.”

HOW TO REACH: Achievement Centers for Children, Camp Cheerful, (440) 238-6200