Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

By Lisa Bergman
Jan. 31, 2018
I was exhausted as I prepared for my journey to a refugee camp in central Malawi in order to train teachers on teamwork and collaboration.

At that point, I was honestly not terribly excited to take public transport for the long trip (minimal 6 hours on public transport from Zomba to Lilongwe). Part of me honestly wanted to just cancel the workshop and stay at home. Thankfully, I didn’t do that because it was an incredible way to start the year and help jumpstart my work. It reinvigorated my passion for this work and reminded me why I even decided to rejoin Peace Corps as a Response Volunteer.

Team building is one of my absolute favorite things to facilitate. As a teenager, I had the opportunity to attend several leadership camps and participate in several team-building days. Being a mathematical minded person, I LOVED the logic puzzles of team challenges, but I wasn’t always the best at sharing. As the day progressed I could see just how much better I personally got at voicing my ideas as I become more comfortable with the other group members. In college, I spent two summers working at a camp where I spent a couple days a week facilitating team building for small groups of campers. It was always really cool to see how much closer a group would become after solving challenges together. Honestly, team building is a powerful tool that not only allows a group of people become a functional cohesive team, but also helps foster personal growth for each individual especially in areas of trust, communication, and collaboration.

For the workshop, I had to be mindful of what resources would be available. By now, I have quite the arsenal of team building activities in my toolkit, but some activities require materials that are a bit more difficult to find. Considering the cost efficient materials I could easily get, I drafted a plan paying particular attention to the flow of building from one activity to another. Team-building activities are purposefully not all created equal. As a facilitator it is important to monitor the strengths and weaknesses of a group and to pick activities that will help them strengthen their weak areas. Having not met the group I would be working with, I had to design a robust program.

We started with establishing Community Norms, which are essentially the “rules” for the group or the expectations the group members have of each other and themselves during the activities. Often this includes things like respecting one another, listening to all ideas, no judgment, have fun, active participation, etc. It is very important to have the group come up with these norms together and then to sign the social contract, especially with younger groups. This allows each group member to feel partial ownership of the norms and empowers them to monitor each other instead of putting that responsibility entirely on the facilitator.

Normally, I would only ever facilitate a group of 8-15 people at a single time. This time around I had 40 people, so I also had to keep in mind how would I monitor the activity with three to four times as many people. To start off the day of fun, we played Robots, a large group activity I have seen done with 100+ people at a time.  They paired up and assigned one partner as a robot and the other as the driver. The robots were now just computers and could only respond to the instructions given by the driver. The driver could instruct the robot using “buttons:” left shoulder to go left, right shoulder to go right, between the shoulder blades to go in reverse, back of the head to go forward, and small of the back to brake. The robots were also require to make a “beep, beep, beep” sound when going in reverse. The drivers took their robots out for a test drive, and then I told the robots that they now had to close their eyes and trust their drivers completely. After a few minutes, roles were reversed.

We then came back together and discussed issues of trust. Before the blind test drive, I had the robots show on their fingers from 1 to 10 how much they trusted their driver; Often our level of trust in someone doesn’t only reflect the trustworthiness of that individual but also reflects our own past experiences and how often our trust has been broken. I had asked how many robots had “peeked” even if they just opened their eyes for a brief second. We also looked at how many people were in “accidents” by running into other robots and how this affected whether people then peeked afterwards. We then discussed the importance of trusting one another when working as a team and how they could build trust with each other.

Next was Farm Animals where I gave each participant a slip of paper with an animal written on it and a vision blocker (more appropriate name for what is commonly called a blindfold) for them to wear. The instructions were fairly simple. They just had to find all the other animals like them but could only make the animal sound. Now, I specifically have a different number for each animal and there is one in particular that was alone and had no one. It was awesomely entertaining to be a facilitator for this one because everyone is wandering around making animal noises, and it’s quite comical. But, there is of course more of a point to the activity than just my entertainment.

After everyone seems to have found their group, they all removed their vision blockers, and we talked about what that felt like to be alone literally in the dark, how relieved were they when they found someone making the same noise as them, what sort of pride developed as the group grew bigger. Then we looked at the poor guy who was a solo elephant. First, he wasn’t sure what sound to make and therefore wasn’t sure what sound to even listen for and then he just wandered around hopelessly and confessed to feeling very isolated and awkward. So, knowing how relieved the others each felt when they found their first partner and were no longer alone, we discussed what it would have been like had they also been solo. Then relating that to the classroom for students who still feel lost and lonely, how can teachers help to create an inclusive classroom so that all students feel like they belong.

Following this, we played a quick easy game of Village Chief to examine different leadership styles and the importance of being a good follower.  Then, they put their vision blockers back on and find a basketball in the room. It was my first time to lead this activity, Ask for Help, with such a large group, and it was absolutely fascinating to watch it unravel.. During instructions, I specifically was misleading but truthful about the ball being in the room but placed in on the floor when saying this. Once a participant has touched the ball they were instructed to remove their vision blocker and go to the edge of the room but remain completely silent. After everyone had their vision blockers on, I walked around the room a bit to “hide” the ball without allowing them to know where it might be, but in fact kept it in my hands when saying they could begin their search for the ball. This game is designed to test people’s threshold of struggling before they are willing to ask someone for help. While I was holding onto the ball and walking around among the participants I would occasionally say, “if you need help, just raise your hand and I will come help you.” When a participant raised their hand, I would touch their hand to the ball, and they would then be free to exit the search circle and watch the others in the struggle.

A group of Malawian teachers huddle together in a group inside of a classroom, preforming a teamwork activity
Team building activities

It honestly still surprises me how long people are willing to crawl around on the floor and search in the dark for a ball before they would raise their hands to ask me for help. Granted they had no idea what sort of help I would offer them, but it was actually impossible to succeed at this task without asking me for help. During the discussion we looked at why are people were resistant to ask for help and why is it important to know when and who to ask. The other fascinating discussion that stemmed from this activity was what it felt like to have to remain silent and be unable to help someone they saw struggling after personally succeeding at a task. Also, how often to we do this in real life; and in what ways can we offer assistance to others while still allowing them to struggle through a problem on their own so as to not enable them.

Following lunch, we had 2 more activities: Hot Chocolate River and Magic Carpet.  These activities challenge people to look at personal success versus team success and making what seems impossible become possible through perseverance and brainstorming. We also looked at, “can we do it better?” Often once people succeed and have found a way that works, they don’t spend time improving the method. These activities definitely require good communication skills as well as actually physical support so there was discussions on what it felt like to feel that support or to provide that support and how often to we need/provide support in real life and in what ways.

To wrap up the day, we sat in a large circle to “make rain.” This is an old camp favorite. I was the starting point, and I told the group that once their neighbor to their left begins to do something, they should follow by doing the same, creating a ripple effect around the circle. I start with simply rubbing my hands together and once it has made it all the way around the circle to the last person in the circle who is on my left, I began snapping my fingers, then patting the lap, followed by stomping the feet on the ground. Then, the actions go in reverse. The sound effects go from wind rustling to sprinkling to raining to thundering. I find it to be a lovely calming way to end a day and have everyone in a circle for closing remarks.

Overall it was an incredibly lovely day with a lot of fun and great discussion. Until this day I had only really facilitated team building with teenagers or younger so it was really awesome to see adults in action and see that no matter how old we get, we still all always have a small childlike spirit and love playing games.

Lisa Bergman