I been in the right place but it musta been the wrong time - Dr. John
People are social animals with a fundamental need to gather and socialize. For many, their primary social environment is at work. When the pandemic sent people away from the workplace, it sent away with them the opportunity to socialize and use their social skills. Teams are likely to have lost strength and solidarity. Individuals will be less socially confident and competent. Leaders will reasonably -- and rightfully -- decide that the need for team building is high, if for no reason other than to simply come together. It’s obvious. Or is it?
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, …”
This opening line from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities captures the paradox of team building. Just when the need for team building is greatest, it may also be the worst time to do it. The potential for gain is great. Team building can do wonders to give people the time and opportunity to share their personal experiences and gain the insight of the team. But the same conditions raise the risk of two unwanted outcomes:
- Crop dusting. Individuals have been away from each other so long they may be shy and literally have little to give the session the energy expected. and may hold back on their true selves resulting in "meh" team building.
- Complete disaster. It will be especially difficult to predict where things may go. Some participants may be experiencing pent up aggression, others, compromised resilience (or even mild depression). The mix can be explosive.
So, what’s at the root of this paradox?
Environments change people.
Here I outline some of the environmental conditions imposed by the pandemic and the consequences they can have on people.
Social isolation. The most powerful environmental influence for people, is people -- including their absence. After spending more than a year isolated from others, people change. Social skills decay, and with them, social confidence. What once was natural and enjoyable becomes awkward and exhausting. You may notice that after a brief period of enthusiastic catching up (honeymoon effect), individuals will seek the shelter of their offices or personal space.
For more extreme cases of social deprivation, people can become self-defeating, vulnerable, and prone to decompensation. They become their most punitive critic, and most vulnerable victim. This isn’t easily observed. Individuals don't brag about feeling down and will do everything they can to conceal their wounds. Care needs to be taken to not thrust anyone into a situation before they’re ready. Team building can be overwhelming for some in these cases. It's necessary to get everyone to a level of comfort necessary to prevent an irrevocable breakdown.
Stressful events. The existential threat of a highly infectious, unpredictable, and potentially lethal global pandemic qualifies as a “stressful event.” This needs no explanation. Everyone on God's green earth knows this. Sure, the effects have varied from person to person or between groups, but we’ve all experienced the effects of stress induced by the pandemic directly or via others.
Stress changes people in many ways. The only way stress can help is when it's experience as mild to moderate. This activates the individual for maximum performance. Some will be fortunate to have this experience.
Beyond low to moderate levels of stress, people’s thinking and behavior are impaired. At moderate-high level of stress, individuals fumble in social settings or avoid them if possible.
Stress is additive. Prolonged exposure to stressors amplifies their ill effects. The stress of living a year under threat of a potentially lethal global pandemic adds up. The result is more stress and stressful behavior – typically anguish or anger. Neither is good for psychological or biological health.
Isolation plus stress. The machinery of the mind doesn’t have a neutral gear. (No. Neither mindfulness nor meditation are about “zoning out”). We’re constantly thinking.
In social situations a good outlet for the active mind is conversation and activity with others – thoughts are directed outward. In isolation, the mind turns its focus inward. We “talk to ourselves” and the topic mirrors the lone situation: Me.
As mentioned above, when this monologue is influenced by moderate to high stress levels, it tends toward critical self-judgment, or ruminating. Stress leads to rumination and rumination is associated with depression.
Psychologists agree that depression isn’t a binary condition separating the depressed from the not depressed. It has degrees and many people, more than most think, live and work with mild to moderate depression. The pandemic has raised these numbers.
Team building for individuals experiencing extreme stress -- or worse, depression -- is threatening. They will need time, at minimum. Counseling may be necessary.
Team building is among the most sensitive of engagements.
Above all, effective team building rests on the shoulders of the team builder. The most important work of the team builder occurs before the event. The team builder must be able to discern “where things are” on multiple levels, picking through limited or incomplete, and conflicting information to approximate the true climate.
Team building is a high-wire act with no net. You don’t want to add a blindfold to the act by not knowing where people are. The need for intake is even more important in our current circumstances. People are coming back together after a lengthy absence and they come from very different places, psychologically speaking.
A good team builder can sense and adapt their actions as the true need/situation unfolds. But sometimes it just isn’t the right time, no adaptation can fix things.
A great team builder knows when the time is not right for what most think of as “team building” and will advise the organization to not proceed until conditions change. They know what the specific conditions are and how to influence them toward the readiness necessary for team building that doesn't result in people getting hurt.
Bottom line: After a year apart the need for team building is high, but the individuals may not be ready, and team building is complicated.
Don’t let what’s obvious obviate what’s right.