Positive and adaptive team dynamics emerge one relationship at a time. Over time, we can get locked into well worn habits of interaction. These habits literally become engrained physically in our brains as neural pathways of thought that lead to habitual, reactive behaviors. Behaviors that are then reinforced through our cognitive and emotional exchange with our colleagues. For better or for worse, the more often we activate these engrained neural pathways the more accessible and easier it is for us to do so. Thus great team cohesion promulgates even greater team work and poor team interaction begets worse team interaction. The causation of how we perceive and interact with the world around us is physically imprinted within us.
This is why change is so hard for most people. The brain consumes the majority of its energy processing recent cognitive thought (our short-term memory) and by the visual cortex. When our firm shoots a High Definition training video the camera records gigabytes of information. Even an HD video camera pales in comparison to the amount of visual data our eyes continuously deliver to our brain to sort out. Because of the energy demands of these two dominant systems the brain is very miserly in its use of energy for everything else it is processing. Well established neural pathways consume far less energy than developing new ones. From the brain’s perspective of energy management it is cheeper to continue to think and react using the well established circuitry. Perspectives and thoughts roll just like water down the path of least resistance.
This is a significant, contributing factor as to why traditional team building activities rarely, if ever, deliver tangible improvements in team dynamics. Events such as ropes courses, competitive games, the building of boats in resort swimming pools or the assembling of bicycles (i.e. the recent GAO event in Las Vegas) are incapable of cognitively framing the neurological and biochemical fundamentals of human interactions while delivering a positive, highly emotive experience for each team member. If anything, the more competitive and physically oriented team building events continue to reinforce dominant, exclusive behaviors that are quite likely at the very root of the current team dynamic the event is intended to address and improve.
While our firm was canvasing the peer-reviewed research for a new program for parents with children with Autism Spectrum Disorder we made an interesting discovery. The most innovative and promising early childhood intervention strategies for cultivating social communication skills are relationship-based. The competencies necessary to successfully support this developmental approach are the exact same competencies we see in high performing teams. Co-regulation of emotion, joining, conscious use of emotional affect, support of independent thinking and support of reciprocity. These competencies develop through the cultivation of new neural pathways in the pre-frontal cortex that result in emotional intelligence skills (self-awareness, self regulation, social awareness and co-creative relationship).
Scientifically-based, relationship oriented approaches to team building that focus on the inclusion of each individual, that build the emotional intelligence competencies through the experiential event with each individual, is the foundation for creating highly adaptive, optimally performing teams. The pre-requisite of exceptional team work lies in the emotional agility of its members. We continuously witness this in our Equine Facilitated Team Building workshops. The approach introduces a scientifically-based, stretch concept of neurological, psychological, emotional or relational importance and then lets every team member experience and experiment with the concept in relationship with a horse, first hand. Novel, yes, and remarkably accelerating to the professional development process. As each individual begins to experience a slight shift in perspective, we bring them together as teams to co-create various goals with the horse. All without the use of touch, language or dominating or coercive behaviors. The team members learn first-hand, from their interactive experiences with the horses and each other, how our intention, presence, non-verbal communication and emotional self-regulation impacts every relationship we experience throughout our lives. How we choose to show up matters and has an emotional contagion affect on others. When we are told this we may believe it, but when we experience for ourselves in round pen with the horses and our fellow teammates we come to know it to be true.
A well intentioned, positive invitation to join another in co-creative relationship is the essence of how we must learn new, adaptive ways of working together to navigate our complex, rapidly changing world. This is where team building must focus going forward.
© 2012, Terry Murray.