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The Serious Fun of Shared Experiences at Work

By planning activities that encourage bonding and meaning, companies can help employees feel like they are a part of a team.

Improv Everywhere held the first no-pants subway ride in 2002. In the dead of winter, in-on-the-joke riders boarded the train in their underwear. Strangers looked up from their books or phones and instead looked at one another, laughing and wondering at the absurdity around them. The straphangers who watched the pantsless riders quickly bonded over the shared experience.

In 2016, a Yale study showed that experiences are amplified and more meaningful if they are shared. In the study, participants tasted chocolate at the same time another person tasted the chocolate with them, or tasted chocolate with the same person present but engaged in another activity, like looking at art. Regardless of whether they enjoyed the chocolate, participants rated the experience more pleasant or more unpleasant if someone joined them in the activity.

What do underwear-clad subway riders and chocolate eaters have to do with business? Everything. Shared experiences are a powerful tool for managers to build high-performing teams. They help to shape values, norms, and behaviors that allow people to get work done more efficiently and effectively. In fact, researchers from the University of New South Wales’s School of Business studying leadership found a productivity uptick of 18 percent in teams in which leaders fostered shared experiences among employees.

In the 1960s, Bruce W. Tuckman, a Naval Medical Research Institute fellow studying small-group behavior in the U.S. Navy, introduced the concept (pdf) of forming-storming-norming-performing as a description of how teams come together and work together to achieve a goal. First, teams form, gathering together to understand the work that must be done and what is expected of them. Next, they storm, which often involves some conflict among members when individual needs clash with group needs. When this resistance is overcome, the individuals norm, or really connect as a team to, finally, perform the work at hand. This evolution occurs in all teams through the business-as-usual working environment. But, by focusing greater attention on shared experiences early on, managers can accelerate this process.

The military provides several examples of this phenomenon. In his book Team of Teams, General Stanley McChrystal, the former U.S. military’s Joint Special Operations Commander, describes the early shared experiences that bond Navy SEALs — starting with their notoriously difficult Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training course. From the outset, prospective SEALs are divided into boat crews of five to eight team members that do everything together and are punished for doing anything alone, even something as simple as walking to the bathroom. Because they are together so often, they quickly learn one another’s habits and working norms. They’re also asked, literally, to breathe as one. On many underwater practice missions, teams must share air tanks. These many formative activities enable SEALS to rapidly build the kind of shared language and mutually reinforcing commitment that is characteristic of a real team.

Once a team is formed, ongoing shared experiences continuously elevate its performance. Shawn Achor, a happiness researcher and former Harvard professor, studied NFL teams and elite military units, investigating why high-pressure situations cause some teams to perform at a high level and others to fail. Achor’s findings suggests that the critical difference was the way in which the teams viewed stress. When stress is combined with meaning — for example, trying to win a Super Bowl — teams performed better. This link to purpose is underscored by the classic teaming theories of my colleague Jon Katzenbach, who proposes, in The Wisdom of Teams (with Douglas K. Smith), that shared purpose is one of the elemental basics that must be in place for a team to perform.

Building Emotional Intelligence

Now, very few industries of business are like preparing for war or playing in the NFL. But it turns out that even lower levels of stress and meaning can help spur team bonding.

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As teams bond through shared experience, their emotional intelligence increases. Why? Because each member is able to learn from one another and observe one another’s emotions and reactions. As a simple example, consider a team dinner where colleagues learn working norms. Over a meal, one can learn working styles, pitfalls to avoid with a boss or client, and the culture of how work is done in the team.

And emotional intelligence can lead to better performance. In a 2006 study, Hillary Elfenbein, a professor of organization behavior at the Olin Business School of Washington University, tested the emotional intelligence of Harvard MBAs (pdf) prior to a business plan competition that awarded funding for real-world business ideas. This competition was a shared experience with both stress and meaning. She found that teams with higher average ability for emotional recognition also reported greater team performance, including more collaboration, greater learning, and lower levels of conflict. In a separate 2007 longitudinal study of younger full-time employees of a public non-profit institution, Elfenbein found that those who exhibited greater emotional intelligence accomplished more (pdf) and had higher retention rates over the course of the year than those with less emotional intelligence.

Creating Shared Experiences

Many companies and organizations already create shared experiences — be they an investment bank’s golf outing, a baseball team’s hazing of rookie players, or an Outward Bound camping experience. Given what we know about how stress and meaning can contribute to shared experiences that build effective teams, it’s possible to sort such efforts into four categories. Managers should strive to create three of these types, but should absolutely avoid the fourth (see exhibit).

Purely social activities — think of the classic consulting team dinner or corporate happy hour — don’t have a lot of meaning and are generally very low stress. With a few notable exceptions, these tend to be lighthearted events where team members can learn about one another. Although they provide only a low level of bonding, they are beneficial because they lead to increased emotional intelligence.

Hobby activities have a high degree of meaning but are not particularly stressful. These include activities that people do for fun and typically work hard at in their off time to improve, such as golf, bowling, cooking, flying a drone. Participants derive meaning from the activity because they enjoy it or because of the competitiveness it engenders. The key in planning such activities for a team is to make sure everyone enjoys doing them or is sufficiently competitive that the competition itself will provide meaning. Although bowling is a common shared experience in workplace teams, many people dislike the sport or worry about how their skill may affect others’ perceptions of their working capability. It is important for managers to find an activity that all participants enjoy. Otherwise, the level of meaning will be high for some and low or nonexistent for others.

In both hobby and social activities, managers should ensure a judgment-free zone where people feel comfortable sharing. Which is to say they should be on the lookout for domineering behavior, criticism among team members, and jockeying for position. In 2011, Google embarked on Project Aristotle, which was aimed at building the perfect team. After years of intensive analysis, one of the company’s key findings was that the highest-performing teams created “psychological safety.” Members on these teams were comfortable being fully present at work, sharing their thoughts and feelings, and ultimately bringing their best work to the table.

Formative activities, which are both very stressful and very meaningful, are effective shared experiences, but they are usually difficult for a manager to create. Military boot camp stands as an obvious example. But outside the military, much of daily business life does not offer opportunity for formative experience. Managers can overcome this by seeking to arrange activities outside the workplace — for example, an obstacle course race organized by the team. More likely, though, important business objectives, if framed properly, offer the opportunity for a formative experience.

At a recent onboarding experience for more than 100 employees, PwC hosted a timed bike-building event. The stress derived from the fact that people had to work with people they didn’t know on a task they had generally never done before (building a bike), with few instructions and little direction, and under competitive pressure (the group was divided into teams that were competing to build the most bikes in the allotted time). The meaning derived from the fact that all the bikes would be donated to needy children, some of whom were in attendance.

At formal dinners, first-year cadets must cut the dessert (a pie or cake) into 13 identically sized pieces.

Hazing activities, in contrast to all the others, are full of stress but generally have no meaning. These should be avoided at all costs as they hurt motivation and lead to less productive teams. Many young consultants hear hazing stories of “the old days” of management consulting. In one, a new consultant was forced to create odd-numbered perfectly symmetrical wedges in a pie chart from 2:00 to 4:00 a.m. before a presentation. Interestingly, at West Point, cadets are forced to do quite a similar activity. At formal dinners, first-year cadets must cut the dessert (a pie or cake) into 13 identically sized pieces. To prepare, many cadets practice by spraying shaving cream in their sinks and practice cutting the cream as if it were a pie. What prevents the exercise from being hazing is that the military leadership adds meaning to the stress. Cadets are told the slices must be equal because everyone must share equally, which reinforces a sense that the team benefit outweighs the individual benefit. It also helps build a cadet’s attention to detail. So rather than an ineffective hazing activity, the dessert-slicing challenge moves up the meaning axis to become a formative activity. It moves closer to the ideal of “real work together” — the crucible that Jon Katzenbach proposes as the alpha and omega of forming a team bond.

Taking Action

Managers shouldn’t wait for HR or the CEO to create an opportunity for a shared experience. Formal events, like training or onboarding, are important. But they’re not sufficient. Further, a manager is usually better positioned to know what kind of event will resonate with her team members and can create a variety of formal and informal shared experiences.

Managers should realize that it’s not enough simply to offer or host an event. Once the shared experience has occurred, they should tell meaningful narratives about the experience. This can be done for any activity, even social and hobby activities.

Consider this example. A team gets together and has a great bowling outing or a fun happy hour. Later in the week, the manager should be sure to remind people of the event with a quick story about a colleague’s impressive score or interesting conversation. They can take this a step further by writing about the event in an employee newsletter or posting photos on the intranet. Recalling the event will spark greater bonding among team members, which will lead to increased emotional intelligence and improved performance.

Sometimes the most serious work can be a matter of play.

Augusto Giacoman

Augusto Giacoman advises companies on people and organizational issues for Strategy&, PwC’s strategy consulting business. He is a principal with PwC US, based in New York.

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