Team building exercises can accomplish a tremendous amount in a very short period of time. They can energize employees, improve communication, and transform a disconnected workforce into a unified team. The goal of a team building event is to build quality connections, enhance communications and establish trust, but this mission can easily be waylaid by pessimists within the group who make it clear that they think little of the exercise.
There is little more frustrating then investing your time and resources into planning an activity that is built on optimism and then having it met by negativity from the pessimists in your group. Though it may be tempting to simply ignore the griping and attempt to work around it, as a leader it’s important that you remember that those pessimists are on your team for a reason. If encouraged, they can bring their own particular strengths and skills to the team’s goal, or draw attention to resentments and dysfunctions that you are not aware of.
Here are five tips for turning pessimists into willing (and maybe eager) team-building participants.
Embrace the Dissent
Every team is made up of a variety of personalities that bring different talents to the project. Though the pessimist may be viewed strictly in terms of their skepticism and negativity, it is important to remember that their views may be based on knowledge or insight that can be of use. According to Jon Katzenbach, author of Wisdom of Teams, “An irritating member adds a dimension to teaming. As long as he or she is not strong enough to derail progress, he or she may offer thoughts that otherwise wouldn’t come in.” Encourage the pessimist to provide input but that part of their responsibility is also to offer alternative solutions. This makes the team member feel that they are being heard and valued, and once they offer detours instead of simply putting up roadblocks they may be more accepted and positively viewed by the group as a whole.
Give Hard Evidence of the Power of Team-building
Pessimists are known for expressing their skepticism, and there is no doubt that they are unlikely to dive right into something that they are unfamiliar with and give you or the team-building exercise the benefit of the doubt. Instead of nagging, cajoling or dragging them along, show them that you have respect for their opinion by providing them with evidence of past success. Though some pessimists simply respond with knee-jerk negativity, many have developed their point of view as a response to previous disappointments. Show them the worth of what you’re doing – just the fact that your opinion matters will likely make them more willing to engage.
Explain how the exercise will address their perceived needs.
Far too often, pessimistic employees will view a team-building exercise as something that is being done for the benefit of management, or because somebody read an article saying that it was a good thing to do. The exercise must be presented as a way of showing concerns about their needs and an effort to improve their environment – and being specific about what those needs are will make it clear that you are not as disconnected and disengaged as they thought. If somebody believes that something is truly being done for them, they are more likely to get on board.
Make them accountable for their action, or inaction
People often express their disapproval or skepticism for team-building by hanging back and not providing full or enthusiastic participation, and sometimes you just need to call them out on it — albeit in a positive and upbeat way. Make it clear that you expect every team member to be accountable and that there will be consequences for failure to participate in the form of a consequence bowl. Give each team member three note cards and ask them to write down their name and some small item ($5 to $10 limit is suggested) that they would enjoy – maybe a Starbucks card or a box of donuts for the team. Nothing embarrassing can be included, nor can one assign one of their actual work tasks to a colleague. All the cards get put into a bowl, and if a team member fails to participate in the team building exercise, they have to pick a card and perform the task. The message is plain – if you fail to participate, you affect the entire team and thus you have to make it up to them. Delivering on the content of the card may actually encourage more communication between team members.
Build the team in a non-traditional way.
Sometimes the problem for the pessimist is less about the effort to build the team then wishing that their time was being better spent. There are plenty of ways to encourage teamwork without having to engage in relay races or trust and communication games. Offering an alternative, such as participating as a group in a community fundraising event, is something that everybody can get behind, and if you really want to engage a particular pessimist, ask them what their favorite charity is and put them in charge of the team. Whether the goal is raising money, building a house for the homeless, cooking meals or raising awareness, you can grow your team’s engagement, communication and respect for each other while at the same time doing good.