It's No Bull: Joyful Play Builds Trust
I once had the opportunity to speak at a retreat for a group of physician recruiters that took place at a dude ranch. In the client’s event confirmation letter, they instructed me to “wear clothes you won’t mind soiling” so that I could take part in their cowboy-themed team-building activities. When the games began, I foolishly volunteered to participate in something called “chute-dogging” mostly because, although I don’t speak cowboy, I do like dogs. As it turned out, no dogs were involved. Instead, I was to work with a partner to grab an adolescent steer by its horns as it was driven out of an enclosure (the chute) and then wrestle it to the ground, aka “dogging it.” When they said clothes I wouldn’t mind soiling, I didn’t realize they meant from the inside.
My partner was a petite middle-aged woman with freshly balanced salon nails and when the steer was driven out with a slap on its rump, she screamed and slapped it again as it sped by her leaving me to grab hold of the horns of a 300-pound animal now in full throttle. I was yanked off my feet so hard that the whip action launched my right boot in a spinning arc behind me and I went bouncing away for the most terrifying ride of my life. When my arms finally gave out, I plowed face-first into the nitrogen-rich soil of the livestock ring and came up sputtering and wondering how something like this was supposed to make a team of physician recruiters more effective.
I limped back to my group, stopping on the way to retrieve my boot. As I drew near, I was greeted with whoops and cheers and people doubled over in laughter at my ungraceful face plant. Later, at dinner, the laughter continued, stories of other awkward and painful moments were shared and I realized something pretty amazing. I wasn’t just a speaker hired to present to their group, I had become one of them. All of us who participated had allowed ourselves to be vulnerable and even embarrassed but instead of tarnishing our status, it raised it and inspired affection and shared laughter. Common emotional experiences build connections and trust because they make each individual “I” into an “us.”
In the book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, author, Patrick Lencioni, uses a pyramid model to explain the elements of which effective teams are made. At the bottom is the foundation level labeled, “trust.” So, the question to ponder is, if everything rests on that, what are the ingredients that can make trust that’s solid enough to support everything else? Lencioni says it is about being open and vulnerable with others, but not everyone is so courageous. Trust is made of the positive emotional experiences we have with others. That positive might come out of negative situations, as when a group comes together in the wake of a crisis, but sometimes the best trust-building material we have is the same we used when we were kids: simply playing and laughing together.
Disasters bring people together and temporarily erase differences as witnessed following recent earthquakes, floods and terror attacks. But it’s not something we want to engineer to build bonds and create trust. Instead, providing experiences in which we can laugh together—even if that means being embarrassed together—can form bonds that are like the rebar that reinforces concrete and makes the kind of solid foundation on which a team can build authentic shared success.