Team Building Is Shared Experience Under Pressure

Ok, I went through military basic training, disaster drills, fraternity hell week, and more than my fair share of corporate-team-building-off-sites. And they all seemed pretty silly at the time. The hazing, the overblown strictness and protocols, the seemingly pointless exercises. I wasn’t until I spent time with combat veterans, first responders and, yes, even startup founders that it all started to make sense. The fundamental currency of teams is trust. And trust is formed through shared experience under pressure.

A Basic Training Story

Let me start with a basic training story. During one of the ubiquitous locker inspections, I watched my Training Instructor palm a small piece of paper and pull it out of the pocket of one of my dress uniform shirts. Failing inspection was a minor “Form 341” offense, but it was portrayed by my T.I. as the end of the world. It was a tense moment. He was truly in my face. “What’s this?” he yelled, so that all of Lackland AFB could hear. “Piece of paper, sir” I responded… a little more quietly. “What’s it doing here?” he yells back (at least the guy ate breath mints). Pause. “Guess I missed it, sir”. He took my Form 341, I got my demerit, it was over and he moved on to the next guy.

So What’s The Point?

So what was the point of all that? I could have called him on it, argued that I just checked my pockets prior to inspection… blah, blah, blah. He knew that I knew he put it there. First, I was the quiet under the radar guy who had, so far, stayed out of trouble and as a result was a bit separate from the team. Aloof might not be too strong a word. I hadn’t screwed up and endured the wrath. He knew a lot guys wouldn’t trust me because of that. And if I argued, the whole flight would have payed a price as well. I’d be throwing them under the bus to save my “spotless record”. Second, he needed to know if I would obey my superior under pressure, no questions asked, or if I would feel compelled to debate and discuss. In the heat of battle, you need to know your followers will follow. Period. Mistakes will be made, bad decisions happen. But as “E-zero” lowest level enlisted guy, you don’t know the whole story so you’re not the one to bring it up at that particular point in time. He was testing my reaction. And the rest of the flight probably guessed I didn’t leave that paper in the pocket, so they knew I took one for the team. The team dynamic changed palpably for me personally after that point.

Why The Pressure Part?

Why not just shared experience? Why the pressure part? Well, if you talk with someone who saw and enjoyed the same movie you did, you’d have a shared experience. You might even go see a another movie they liked based on that. But chances are that experience wouldn’t give you confidence to enter hostile territory with you watching one half and they responsible for the other. Chances are you wouldn’t automatically assume that, when all hell broke lose, they’d hop on the bus to the scene with you. And you’re not likely give this person part of your nest egg to start a business any more than they would you. There’s not a lot of depth/strength in plain shared experience.

Pressure creates stress and stress identifies weakness. A maintenance chief I once new was fond of saying: “If it doesn’t work, force it. If it breaks, it needed to be replaced anyway”. So the more weaknesses are identified and repaired or replaced, the higher the trust that things will work well when the pressure is on. Works with people too. It’s illuminating to see how folks react to being asked/told to do something they wouldn’t ordinarily do in the interests of achieving a common goal – with not a lot of time to think about it. SEALs don’t keep a lot of earnest people around if they’re not fully capable and totally committed. They can’t afford the stakes.

It’s About Transitions

Fine, so what does that have to do with running a business? Everything. Businesses don’t always do such a great job of culling the herd. If your employees don’t trust one another – even if there’s just one person they don’t trust, you don’t have a team. You have a group of workers. When things are going ok, they’ll just be inefficient. When the crap hits the fan, you will fail because the distraction and friction from the lack of trust will cost you dearly at the worst possible time.

Worst possible times are usually transitions. Start of a new business, launching a new product or entering a new market are obvious transitions. Here, the consequences are repeatedly missed milestones, cost overruns and revenue shortfalls. The mother of all transitions is the merger or acquisition. Here you’re trying to merge two teams who have established, over time, a level of trust that is now being challenged. You will never dismantle the exiting informal team structures no matter how many one-on-ones, and craftily created org charts you devise. Unless you find a way to create new shared experiences under pressure you will endure inefficiencies at best and untold interpersonal dramas at worst. Strong, committed, respected leadership might be able to wrestle that through day-to-day operations, but finding a way to accelerate the process during the first 3-6 months is a more effective approach. Whether creating a new, jointly staffed internal project or rotating a series of mixed teams through some appropriate off site event, a new layer of trust must be formed quickly.

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