3 Effective Exercises to Build Stronger Teams

It is common in social organizing for people to start by learning about each other and building deep and authentic relationships that help the group navigate challenges together. This is starting to happen in more and more organizations, from schools to companies. Sometimes this is done in ways that may seem a “touchy-feel” or over the top to people who

are part of more traditional organizations, but after integrating many of them at Change.org, I can say that we won over even the most sceptical of engineers and business people.

Here are a few examples of the types of exercises I’ve found effective:

  1. Lifelines

Break people into small groups, and ask everyone to describe three to five key moments or events in their lives that have influenced who they are today. It’s an amazing way to break down the barriers between people and gain a deeper understanding of one another. These conversations are kept strictly confidential between the group members and, as a result, build enormous trust. I’ve heard stories about dealing with racism and the deaths of loved ones, recollections about inspiring mentors, unusual job opportunities, and more. It’s a great way to deepen the relationships among your team.

  1. Storytelling

Building upon the lifeline exercise, encourage people to tell a meaningful story about their life in front of a larger group. One of the most memorable sessions we ever had at a company retreat was to hold a storytelling night in front of a campfire. Ten people from the company had volunteered to tell a powerful story from their life in front of the whole company, which they had rehearsed beforehand. The stories we heard that night had us laughing and sobbing and appreciating the courage of the people who were willing to share so much of them. And their willingness to be exposed made everyone more willing to be open with each other.

  1. Appreciations

One of the most effective techniques I have seen to build trust within a group is appreciations. At the end of a project or an off-site meeting, we ask the group to share things they appreciate about each other. We go around the circle, giving each person a few minutes to be appreciated. The rest of the group can chime in with reasons why they appreciate that person, ideally using specific examples. The whole group isn’t required to speak, but I’ve found there are usually more people who want to talk than time available. Don’t get me wrong: It’s awkward to be publicly appreciated by people. It’s not something that most of us have experienced or are comfortable with. But it is also extremely moving. We so rarely take the time to tell others in our lives why we appreciate and admire them. That when we do, it is unexpectedly powerful.

These types of activities build deeper and more meaningful relationships among co-workers, which then helps you work more effectively together. I’ve noticed that it helps with conflict resolution in particular; the stronger the foundational relationship between two people, the more easily these conflicts are resolved or avoided altogether. And knowing more about their colleagues helps people assume the best. In fact, lots of people on my teams will tell you that when they come to me with an issue they are having with a colleague, my advice is “first, go have a beer” (or a cup of tea, you get the idea). If you can get to know someone first, then everything after that just comes more easily.

I’ve met some people who are sceptical that these techniques could work in their organization. Often, they tell me that they think these are great ideas and that they see how they could work inside a social change company, but that they couldn’t work elsewhere. I strongly disagree. If we could get engineers and accountants to appreciate these activities, they can work anywhere. Tools that build deeper understanding between people add value to teams of any kind, from universities to traditional businesses to sports teams. After all, underneath our protective Spanx, we are all just human.


Excerpted from Purposeful: Are You a Manager or a Movement Starter? by Jennifer Dulski, in agreement with Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Jennifer Dulski, 2018.


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