I had just given the group of 12 adults their instructions to put on their blindfolds, cinch them up tight, and take hold of a 50 foot length of rope. I could tell that some of them were pretty nervous.

I told them their mission was to form as close to a perfect square as they could while blindfolded. They could talk to one another, but they could not see.

Once they thought they had the formed the perfect square, they were to lay the rope down on the ground and agree, as a group, to remove their blindfolds to check their work.

So off they went. I moved around the large room, making sure no one ran into a wall or a chair.

Now, to explain: this group was made up of social workers from a large non-profit service organization. The leader of this group “Cathy” had contacted me and told me that their group was having communication problems. Their inability to talk effectively to each other was hurting their ability to service their clients. She didn’t know the root of the problem, but she knew that something had to be done.  She emphatically told me to “fix” them.

With that information in mind, I created a three hour program that would help us get to the bottom of their communication problem and hopefully come up with some acceptable solutions.

“The Blindfolded Square”, as it’s called, is just one of several activities that show me how the group collectively handles stress. And, in this case, boy, did it.

At first, the group was rational. They found the ends of the rope and then started to make an effort to form “corners”. This is a good strategy. However, at some point, one of the women lost hold of the rope, which she wasn’t supposed to have done, and she quickly got disoriented, as she was still blindfolded. “Susan” ended up walking away from the group, instead of toward it. I watched her the entire time, but I didn’t speak to her or help her back. I just made sure she didn’t inadvertently walk out the door into the parking lot.

Susan’s body language told me she was scared. I’m sure that she was also embarrassed to have become separated and didn’t want to call out that she was lost. That raised a red flag for me right then. Why wouldn’t she call for help to her teammates? But, I waited and let the situation play itself out.

Cathy, the supervisor of this group, was also the dominant force in this activity. I was surprised how she repeatedly talked over her team members and almost shouted down their suggestions. After only a few minutes, the group had pretty much given up trying to solve the problem and just let her tell them what to do.

Shortly after Susan had become separated from the group and was standing alone in a corner, Cathy called out to assign her a job. Susan didn’t respond at first. Her hands were trembling.

Cathy called out again, this time with anger and frustration in her voice. “Susan! Where are you!” Finally, Susan said quietly, almost to herself, “I’m here.”

“Susan! Why are you so far away? What are you doing?” The rest of the group was silent.

“I, I accidentally let go of the rope,” Susan stammered.

Then Cathy uttered an expletive that is not allowed to be printed on this family website.

“Typical. Just typical! If anyone was going to screw up, I should have known it was going to be you! Now, take your blindfold off and get over here!”

Wow! I was floored at what I had just seen.

I didn’t have to guess anymore at what the problem was for this particular group.

Susan was humiliated. The rest of the group was embarrassed to have been present for this. I’m sure they were all glad they were blindfolded. No one spoke up.

Well, I stopped the activity and offered them a bathroom and coffee break. We needed to diffuse the situation.

After that, I moved onto other activities that offered them a greater chance of success, while still working on how to respect one another. As often as I could I directed Cathy to be more empathetic toward her employees/staff members. I realized that this entire training was about getting her to treat her staff with respect and getting her staff to speak up and not accept this kind of verbal and emotional abuse.

Perhaps your work environment isn’t quite so dysfunctional, but remember that often times, the problem we are having in our work has roots in our own behavior.  I’ve seen this proven in case after case.

In future posts, I will be writing about the various ways a team building retreat can benefit any non-profit team.

Photo by: Natalie Vella

Posted on 23 January 2011

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