Crossing Oars: Team Building through Intuitive Interdependence

Share This
March 27, 2017 | Crystal Kadakia | HCI

One of the biggest myths today, especially with regards to the millennial generation, is that team building is as simple as creating a fun, collegiate environment through changes like installing ping pong tables, offering free food, and hosting Friday happy hours. That’s what they are used to and are asking for, right?

Much more lies beneath the surface, like many millennial beliefs. Millennial workplace behavior, according to my research over the past five years, is a reflection of the digital world they grew up in. This approach disproves many millennial myths, and it provides insight into cross-generational workplace needs for a digital world. For team building, the need goes far beyond fun environments.

Team building is of much complexity and importance. Employees more commonly work from home, either part- or full-time. The work environment is more diverse and global. Workers do not work under the same assumptions of what normal looks like, acceptable behavior and communication using the same styles. And yet, the challenges of the job are more complex and fast paced, requiring more responsive and intuitive connections with our teammates. For an effective workplace that creates community and retains top talent in today’s virtual, diverse world, team building requires intentional design.

Team Concepts is a 22-year-old company founded by Dan Lyons, an Olympic rowing athlete. They have perfected a timeless, powerful approach to team building - using the coordinated physical movement of rowing to create intuitive bonds between teammates. While team building events often happen outdoors (like obstacle courses and trust falls we all know and love!), rowing is an inherently interdependent sport; one in which the participants must experience “flow” as a high-performing team.

In the day-long workshop known as Team Champion, a team is led through a series of activities starting with creating team missions, learning the basics of rowing, and getting on the water. As an enthusiastic observer, it was amazing to see how much the teams achieved in a short time. Everyone learned how to row, they were able to function together as a high performing team, and compete in a race at the end.

Inherent Interdependence

You come as an individual. You bring your individual strengths and limitations with you. But it takes a team to move the boat forward. In rowing, the paradox of both being yourself and being a part of a team disappears out of necessity. Part of building capability is knowing what success looks like. Once participants grasp the feeling of high-performing interdependence, they have a clear example that helps them identify when they are in sync with the team and when they are not.

A Constant Focus on Balance

You are still a part of the team even when you are not leading or rowing, because the boat can easily become unbalanced. Attention cannot lapse or you will be working against the team. When not leading, your job is to provide support to make sure the team stays balanced. Analogous to work situations, employees may not always be the center of attention or responsible in the moment, but to ensure the success of the team, they must continue to support and help maintain balance.

Trust and Collaboration

Trust that your teammates are working to support you. In rowing, if an individual in a boat tries to adopt a competitive or go-it-alone stance to other teammates, the boat will not move forward and action is counterproductive. All teammates must adopt the mindset of all being in the boat together, regardless of past history or differences in perspective. Often at work, departmental silos or individual conflicts can thwart the larger mission. Instead of being in the boat together, employees can row against one another, and go nowhere as a result.

Your Role Is Important

The position a person holds on the boat is chosen strategically, just like individuals’ positions in the workplace. In addition, different positions have different vantage points and purposes. Employees may have a different set of information to work with when at the top, middle, or lower level. Through bringing together different perspectives, a winning team can be created.

Challenges of the Modern Workplace

Some of the modern challenges I’ve been researching include an increased need and expectation to navigate a diverse world, not only by embracing differences, but genuinely respecting individuality while creating unity. Another challenge is the screen time Millennials and Gen Z engage in and the consequences for communication, motivation, and relationship building. The physical, intuitive interdependence demonstrated by rowing overcomes these challenges with elegance:

Challenge 1: Diversity

We have been working hard to understand what diversity and inclusion means. The needs are to create unity, and respect and understand differences. Primarily, we resort to discussion and meetings as default. While these discussions are important, we often need more to move to relationship building. In addition, diversity initiatives can unintentionally create divisions through segmentation.

By using rowing to build team bonds, we put the focus on something common to all humans – physical activity, which intuitively brings us together while inherently respecting our individuality. Team Concepts asserts that everyone wants to feel valued, and teaches the importance of empowering individuals within team synergy. This aligns well with the concept I discuss in my new book, The Millennial Myth, in which diversity and inclusion initiatives should start at the level of common topic, such as gender, then bring to life and support individual perspectives.

Challenge 2: Millennials, Gen Z, and Relationship Building

Stephen, a 25-year-old rowing coach and fellow millennial has seen a drastic shift in behavior with the next generation (Gen Z). While millennials remember a world without internet, Gen Z has no recollection of such a time. When Stephen comes face-to-face with communication and relationship building, he observes that video games are a large influence on the middle school kids he leads. While Stephen remembers staying up chatting with teammates, playing group games on the bus, and building relationships, Gen Z is often playing games on their own. What we are seeing in middle school kids represents an important signal to corporate: we need to intentionally build in physical, face-to-face, visceral experiences to create relationship-building skills.

Often, we think that to be “Millennial-friendly” or to keep up with our fast-paced world, we need to be high-tech and digital savvy. Our research on modern learning tells us differently. What we really need is to be purposeful, especially in the case of soft skills like team building, communicating, and diversity and inclusion. Millennials prefer face-to-face training, but for Gen Z, face-to-face learning is no longer a skill we can assume will be present at the same degree as in the past.

Just because virtual tools like social networks exist, we cannot replace or short cut in-depth training. We must concentrate on the goal we’d like to achieve, and consider the ROI of face-to-face, immersive experiences.

Team Concepts has put forth a high-impact model for team building and leadership development that has increased relevance in a digital world. What other examples can you think of? For more resources on transforming other millennial assumptions into workplace breakthroughs, check out The Millennial Myth, and for designing modern learning programs, check out The Modern Learner workshop.