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People are funny. They are filled with contradictions they don’t even realize. On the one hand, Gen X’ers and older complain that “kids today” don’t know how to talk to each other. All they do is text, email, or Facebook each other. They have thousands of “Facebook friends” but few people with whom they actually talk. Then, when these same “older generations,” who are now at the height of their work careers, lead meetings or training sessions, they dive right into content without taking the time to build relations and create a community with the people in the room.

The problem with skipping “social niceties” is that it makes it harder to have those honest, open discussions that everyone seeks. Just like “Facebook Friends” aren’t always “real friends,” meeting or training participants are not always participative just because they are in the same gathering. We need to take the time to build real relationships if we want to have truly open and productive conversations.

Of course, most managers will agree: meeting time is too short to “waste” on team building when there are problems to solve and other meetings to attend.   Similarly, Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) who lead training sessions often skip icebreakers because there is just too much content to cover.

So how do we build community? If you are training people who do not usually work together, take the time to conduct some type of opening activity. The activity can directly relate to the challenges that the session will address and should also give people a chance to get to know each other. People need to get answers to these basic questions before they can seriously think about more serious issues:

  • Who are all these other people in the room?
  • How do I compare to them?
  • Will they support or deride me?

Until they feel they can trust the other participants, they are not likely to say much of substance. Opening activities focus participants’ attention and answer these questions, which ultimately leads to a more productive and engaging session.

If you work with the same people on a regular basis, you do not need to wait until a meeting or training session to build trust. Here are some tips and explanations for building community at work, based on Jann Freed’s recent article Leaders Build Community:

  • Plan social events with a purpose: Happy hours are nice, but events like talent shows or game nights build more community by giving people a common cause. Afterwards, they leave with common memories that build a shared history.
  • Start or end meetings with a success story: Ask a different member to share a success story that has happened since the last meeting. Vary the story-telling time so that people cannot plan to skip that part of the meeting.
  • Set up individual meetings: Get to know your team members through informal meetings over coffee, tea, or any other “hot beverage” (as Sheldon Cooper would say). Use the time to learn about their hobbies and activities. Understanding what interests them provides great insight into what motivates them. Remember that this is a dialogue, not an inquisition: Share your interests so they can feel more comfortable around you, too.
  • Ask and listen: Get to know people by asking questions about themselves. Then listen actively as they answer. Do not interrupt. Do not spend their answer time thinking about anything else. Search for information.

Of course, the challenge with the first three tips is overuse. If you always do the same type of social event, people get bored. That leads us to….

This month’s questions:

What do you do to build community?

What activities have you found helpful either in training sessions or for your work team? What have you found effective to build community with remote stakeholders?

Please share your ideas below so we can learn from each other.

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