5 Improv-Inspired Games to Build Trust in Your Teams

by Daniel Hannig

“Trust is built when someone is vulnerable and not taken advantage of.”– Bob Vanourek, author of Triple Crown Leadership

Trust is the invisible thread that ties teams together. Without it, employees question each other’s motives, battle for seniority, and withhold valuable information. As we know from our personal relationships, trust isn’t something that can be forced. Even if you want to trust someone, your history with that person, or even your own background, can keep you from sharing openly. The emotional power of trust accounts for a significant amount of business value–ask any stockbroker. Investors trust that they will make a return, consumers trust that your product will deliver on its promised benefits, and employees trust that their work will be compensated with a salary.

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If the trust is broken in any of those basic transactional relationships, investors will sell shares, consumers will return their product, and employees will quit. Even setting aside the role that trust plays in every small interaction, all purchasing decisions are rooted in the idea that, if you give someone your money, you trust that you’ll receive something of value in return. Diminishing the value of trust within your organization means dismissing the role it plays in generating revenue for your company.

Many workplace issues can be symptomatic of a lack of trust. If a previously outstanding employee’s performance has suffered, it may be because they don’t trust their employer to recognize and reward exceptional work. Alternatively, an historically high-performing employee could underperform due to a personal obstacle that they don’t trust their supervisor to understand. Trust issues could also explain why critical information doesn’t flow to the right people.

If you don’t trust that someone will act appropriately or effectively on a given decision, you are more likely to circumvent that person in order to accomplish your goal. If you see that a project isn’t moving as quickly as you’d expect, you might assume that an employee is lazy or unmotivated, when in actuality they are limited by logistics. An absence of trust leads employees to fill in the gaps to determine their coworkers’ motives. When trust is palpable in a team, they know each other well enough to assume the best of each other. They are more willing to collaborate, to put in extra effort, and to emotionally connect with the final result of their work.

Forward-thinking companies have lately turned to an unlikely source for guidance on building trust in teams: improv comedy. To spontaneously create a scene out of thin air, on stage in front of a live audience, improv performers have to trust their fellow actors to make them look good. To kick off a rehearsal, improv troupes will begin with improv games designed to get them thinking collaboratively while practising trust with each other. These games are a fun way to actively work on team building without condemning your employees to the tired “Work on an activity together and present your result to the class” model. While they might seem silly, allowing your veneer of professionalism to fall for a few minutes lets others see you as you really are. And that’s the first step to establishing trust.

Below we’ll outline tips for growing trust within your team and a corresponding improv-inspired team building game that you can try out at work.

Get to know each other

As we walk into our offices, we put on the professional faces that we hope will compel people to take us seriously and value our work. However, these polished exteriors put distance between employees’ real selves. If your employees are going to trust each other, they are going to have to see each other as real people first.

Team building game: The Name Game

How it works:

The Name Game is a simple icebreaker. While most name games are created with the primary goal of memory retention, this one is a little bit different. Each person within the group both introduces themselves and tells the story of how they got their first name. Not only is it easier to remember someone’s name when it is in the context of a story, but it also allows a person to be vulnerable and tell something true.

Lead by example

It’s easier for employees to feel comfortable loosening up if they see their superiors relax first. If you present yourself as an exacting authority figure at all times, chances are your employees will struggle to let their guard down. The following exercise gives employees the opportunity to instruct each other and, in so doing, illustrate how difficult it can be to outline clear instructions and what tone is most effective.

Team building game: Blind Waiter

How it works:

Separate your group into teams of 5-6 people. One lucky employee will be the customer, while the others will serve as waiters. While blindfolded, the waiters must serve wine to the customer–who is sitting on his or her hands. In order to do so, the waiters must find 1 wine bottle, 1 glass, and one corkscrew, which are hidden around the room. The customer must direct the waiters to find the necessary objects and successfully pour the wine into the glass. If you feel like making a mess, waiters can even help the customer take a sip of their wine.

Communicate Openly

Transparency is becoming one of the latest buzzwords in HR. Without transparency, it’s difficult for employees to have the information they need to do their job. Rational decision-making is impossible without having enough evidence to make an informed judgement call. Good decision-making also relies on a diverse range of employees feeling comfortable enough to share their honest opinion. If an employee predicts a problem but is too nervous to say anything, a poor decision could go forward and fail.

Team building game: This Beats That

How it works:

Present four objects that are completely different. It doesn’t matter what they are, just that they don’t have anything in common. Split your group into two even-numbered teams. Give them a fantastical scenario–”Aliens have invaded Earth!”–and ask them to rank the objects in front of them in terms of usefulness. Prompt team members to explain why they ranked them in the order that they did.

It helps to bring quite a few miscellaneous items so that you can do a few different rounds. This game will encourage employees to share their perspective while engaging in creative problem-solving.

Survey Regularly

Sometimes, the most painless way to find out what your employees really think is to solicit their feedback. Sending surveys to your employees on a regular basis lets them know that you are actively pursuing their perspective while collecting insights that can be quantified and prioritized.

Team building game: Pop Question

How it works:

For this game, you won’t need to separate your group into teams. Hand out one deflated balloon, a scrap of paper, and a pen to each employee. Instruct each employee to write a question on the paper, tuck it into the balloon, blow it up, and tie it. Play a game of “Keep Up” with the balloons–toss the balloons around to each employee, trying to make sure that they don’t touch the ground. If a balloon falls to the floor, the employee that missed it must pop the balloon and answer the question that’s inside.

You can choose to guide your employees toward more work-related questions–”What motivates you the most at work?”, “What’s your favourite project that you’ve worked on?”, “What skill would you like to develop?”–or use the game as an opportunity to get to know each other on a more personal level.

Invest in Skills Development

If you’ve hired the right people, chances are they want to improve their skills and grow in their position. A motivated and ambitious employee won’t want to do the same types of tasks every day for years. By investing in their progress, you not only give them a reason to stay with your company; you also get to reap the benefits of those new skills later on.

Team building game: Scavenger Hunt

Scavenger hunts are a great way to get employees to work together on a shared outcome, while learning something about each other and their surroundings along the way. Divide employees into at least two teams, and give each team a list of items to find or tasks to accomplish. The items on the list should be awarded different point values for the difficulty of the task (plus, the level of embarrassment associated with its completion).

Aim for a variety of activities in your scavenger hunt. Add questions and riddles, twists and clues to keep it interesting. “What did Steve in Accounting have for lunch last Monday?” “Which letter in the building’s sign has a bird’s nest in it?”

Scavenger hunts help develop teamwork and creativity. By randomly assembling teams, employees have the opportunity to make new friendships. Employees also have the opportunity to showcase skills that might otherwise go unseen at work.

A scavenger hunt could span a whole city or be used to orient newcomers into your office building. While they take time and effort to prepare, scavenger hunts are one of the most popular and fun team-building exercises you can share with your employees.

If the thought of leading a team-building game makes you sweat, there’s always the option of calling in professionals. Most improv comedy theatres run corporate workshops to bring the team-building lessons and creativity of improv into workplace environments. Second City, the famed improv theatre that introduced the world to John Belushi and Martin Short, now has its own B2B arm (Second City Works) that teaches improv concepts to companies. Find out if your local comedy theatre runs corporate workshops that you can book for your team.

And, scene!


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