There is something about sitting around in a close huddle and swapping stories that makes people bond together like nothing else does.

Long ago, when I used to literally shiver at the thought of going up to a stage and speaking in front of an audience, someone wise had given me a golden piece of advice: “Pretend & act that you are confident – and soon you will start feeling that way”. “Wasn’t it supposed to be the other way round?” I wondered. “You feel confident first – because of which you are able to act that way”. But the all-consuming panic and stage fright quickly ensured that I followed the one path to survival shown to me. And wonder of wonders – it worked!! That was one trick I have used over and over and over again all through my growing years and in my professional life too!

The same thought came rushing to me again: “Pretend / Act a certain way – and soon you start feeling the same way too!”. Only this time, the scenario was different. In front of me was a group of senior managers of an MNC bank. We had just finished doing many exercises using the Myer-Brigg Type Indicator (MBTI). The idea was to highlight how – below our apparent similarities, each one of us is so uniquely different as a human being, in the way we perceive the world and make our decisions around it. The day had proceeded better than expected – and the fact that the group had reached the realization of the differences was palpable. The key question now for me as a Facilitator was to now move them back in the opposite direction: “How do I get them to come together again, with the new appreciation of how unique they were individually – and yet how similar they were in many ways that wove them together as a team. How could I make them see that together they created a unique mosaic, which is so uniquely “them” as a team?”.

This is when the learning of many years came rushing to me: “To get a group of people feel like a close team, get them to pretend / act they are already a close knit team, sitting in a huddle, swapping stories about each other”.

But sometimes with people, it is not as easy to get them to drop their defenses. Years of competitive corporate life, sometimes makes one believe that showing your real self somehow exposes you and makes you more vulnerable to the office politics. “How do we get around this deep seated psyche?”. There is a popular concept in football called a “head-fake”. The footballer moves his head in one direction, when he actually intends going in the other direction. We needed a head-fake.

The head-fake for us came in the form of PLAY. The one thing that makes people let their guards down, other than small children is the act of playing. “Nothing serious, we are just playing”!…. Oh yes, that really works!

We soon had all 10 senior managers take up colors and markers and unleash their creativity in drawing a tree – complete with roots, leaves, buds, thorns, trunk, birds around…. Well, the only restriction they had was their own imagination. And then, we made a creative leap…. “Just imagine that the tree you have drawn is your personality tree and each component there represents something in your personality – for ex. The trunk being your core values, the flowers being your achievement, the thorns being your challenges & struggles, the leaves being your skills, the buds being your opportunities and so on…”, “Can you think for 10 minutes and share the story of your tree?”

This was when we got all of them sitting knee to knee in a close circle. I was privileged to be a part of that circle. The next one hour was one of the most fascinating hours that I have spent – just listening to the stories of these 10 corporate people, entrenched and enmeshed by their daily lives and day-to-day challenges, and yet when each of them spoke, the similarities, the hopes, the challenges and their unique achievements came together so beautifully to form a unique collage.

There was one person who had conquered Mt.Kilimanjaro. He did not look the mountaineering-types. There was another quiet person who donated 25% of his salary every month to charity. His aim in life was to be able to donate 50% at some point. There was another person who had taken breaks from work to be able to sneak across international borders to rescue girl children. There were many jaws that dropped at that moment. Yet another person was an avid off-roader. Atleast two of them cherished dreams of becoming entrepreneurs. One said that the achievement of his life was bringing up two very well behaved children. Many of them had started their careers from very humble beginnings – and were proud of where they had reached. Many spoke about how they want to give back to society, so that many like them would get their chances. A lady spoke about how she just could not lie come what may – another really big man spoke about how he could never ever hurt anyone and how even the thought of having hurt someone unintentionally, makes him lose his sleep. Speaking about their individual journeys, tapping deep into untouched memories, a few of them occasionally choked a bit. When one person wiped his tears, I could see 9 more that were being held back.

We let the conversation go on till there was a natural silence. Yet, it was a very comfortable silence. Somehow in that one hour, the individuals in the group had coalesced into a team. For sure, there would still be a long way to go before they would be a “great” team, but a big chasm had been conquered that day. Figuratively, the members were atleast all holding hands together. There was an invisible bond that now ran through all of them, it was a bond formed by exposing their deepest sides to each other.

The holiest of the Indian scriptures, are the Upanishads. When you break down the etymology of the word, the Sanskrit term upaniṣad derives from upa- (nearby), ni- (at the proper place, down) and sad (“sitting down near”).

Truly, there is something holy about sitting around in a close huddle and swapping stories that makes people bond together like nothing else does. You don’t have to take my word for it – try this with your team today, and do let me know how it goes!




                                                                                                                         Cooking up a Storm
                                                                                                                                By Arun Rao

Some wise man once told me: “The way you play is the way you work”. In my work with the several teams I have had the good fortune to watch closely, I have often been witness to this truth rising to the fore unfailingly.

And so it was, during the Friday of last week, when we were conducting a team building workshop for the senior leadership team of a corporate behemoth.

The challenge laid out to them was starkly simple: to cook a meal. The nine individuals were split into 3 groups, which were handed Rs.200 each. The only other things offered were a cooking vessel, a ladle, a cutting board and a knife. No ingredients, no cooking stove, nothing else. And ofcourse, before they started, their pockets were emptied out of any other resources that could possibly come in handy. The instructions were specific: to cook a full course meal – with a starter, a main course and a dessert.

A senior leadership team – dabbling every day in millions, being asked to cook a simple meal. Whats in it you wonder?

This is where the story unfolds layer by layer. If there is one thing that is a constant in todays’ corporate world, it is the certainty of change & the spectre of ambiguity always casting a long shadow. So, back to the cooking, when the teams are thrown the challenge, how they confront the situation is a telling commentary on their approach to ambiguity.

“How can we do all that in just Rs.200?”, “Where do we get all the stuff we need to cook?”, “Where do we cook?”, “All this in just 3 hours?”, “But none of us is good at cooking!” – the objections, the resistance often flies thick and fast, at first. All of which is met with a friendly smile, a shrug of the shoulders – and a helpful line in encouragement from us as Facilitators: “All the very best!”

This is where reality begins to sink in…… “What we cook is what we have as lunch”, “We need to find a way to do this!”. There is a legendary story of Hernando Cortez the Spanish Conquistador who ordered his men to burn their ships soon upon landing in Mexico. The message was clear: there was no option of turning back. Needless to say, they won. Adversity sometimes can be the greatest motivator. And so it was with our corporate cooks – that after the initial rumblings were settled – and no way through was seen, the actual work of how to go about began to be discussed.

What generally happens next is perhaps the clearest reflection of team dynamics playing out. The natural tendencies of individuals quickly emerge. There are some who go into a “quiet-think” mode, silently figuring out what next to do, putting their thoughts together and then emerging back again to share with their groups. There are some who immediately get into “take-charge” mode – talking as they think, gathering everyone around and trying to bounce different ideas. There are some who would watch from the sidelines, waiting for a plan to emerge before jumping in to do their bit. And yes, there would also be some who wear an all-knowing smirk, twiddling their thumbs metaphorically & wait with an attitude that says, “Lets see where all this finally leads”. There would be some who would say, “Lets make a list of everything we need”, someone else who would say, “Lets go to the market and figure”. One task, different approaches – to an MBTI practitioner, it would be just the different preferences playing out so clearly as it would in any group.

Very soon however, a consensus and consequent plans, do emerge. These after all are people who make things happen in large organizations. The stage is now set for the next phase – moving from planning to actual execution. And even here, the same story – of one task, different approaches – plays out in delightful ways.

One group went by the straight rule book. Someone went searching for the nearest market, hitching rides along the way. Another group member went around in the search of a spot to cook. Yet another group member got busy in figuring out how to get a fire started.

In another group – one member approached the nearest house outside the hotel, offering to buy the vegetables in the refrigerator of the bewildered resident. “You can buy it at the market, no?” he was asked. But he pulled it off yet. A third group took a similar approach, but with the hotel pantry. Call it innovation or call it the Indian spirit of jugaad, the challenge of resourcing was well and truly taken up!

The clock ticked on and soon the 3 groups had 3 fires going on in close vicinity to each other. Ever wondered why industries tend to congregate into a certain region? Well, that’s a discussion for another day. But as the fires crackled under the makeshift stone stoves, the ticking timelines got the tempers outside occasionally flaring too.

“You were supposed to get the fire ready by the time we came back”, “Now that we have the fire ready, maybe you can also help in kindling it”, “But its not my job”, “Could you not cut the vegetables closer to the fire?”, “Don’t just stand there – lend a hand”.

Water always finds its level – and so it is said about teams. Eventually everyone found a role to do – some assigned, some assumed. And so as the vegetables simmered in the pots, the smiles, laughter and friendly banter, slowly returned again.

Soon it was time to lay out the food and present it to the entire team. The sense of achievement and pride in the team was palpable. There is nothing that bonds a team as well as shared success. We are often witness to teams going up in team cheers spontaneously at this stage! We then had the Chef-de-Presentatione of each team come up and conjure a wildly creative outpouring of what they had cooked up, that left everyone in splits!

In our work with teams, our constant search is for the elusive “team elixir”. What makes a group of people come together as a cohesive team we constantly wonder and explore. We don’t have the definitive answers as yet, but there are certain common themes that time and again appear:

  • A shared sense of purpose

(Its OUR meal!)

  • A shared sense of destiny

(If we don’t cook – ALL of us go hungry !)

  • A shared sense of responsibility

(I do THIS best – you do THAT best – but only together we can cook a meal !)

  • A shared sense of fun, play & camaraderie

(Lets try it! … So what if we go wrong!…. hahahaha!)

For sure there would be many more ingredients that go into building a good team – similarly as there would be many more ingredients that could go to make the cooking tastier. But if there is one over-arching lesson that the Cooking Challenge teaches, it is this: One cook can perhaps lay out a good dish, but if it’s a banquet you are after, you need a team.