3 Effective Exercises to Build Stronger Teams

UPDATED: August 28, 2018
PUBLISHED: September 4, 2018

If you start with the premise that we’ll build stronger teams when we first build stronger relationships with the people on them, you can apply several techniques I learned from the social organizers at Change.org to build stronger connections between people in more traditional work environments.

Related: The Road Map to Great Teamwork

It is common in social organizing for people to start by learning about each other and building deep and authentic relationships that help the group navigate challenges together. This is starting to happen in more and more organizations, from schools to companies. Sometimes this is done in ways that may seem “touchy-feely” or over the top to people who are part of more traditional organizations, but after integrating many of them at Change.org, I can say that we won over even the most skeptical of engineers and businesspeople.

Here are a few examples of the types of exercises I’ve found effective:

1. Lifelines

Break people into small groups, and ask everyone to describe three to five key moments or events in their lives that have influenced who they are today. It’s an amazing way to break down the barriers between people and gain a deeper understanding of one another. These conversations are kept strictly confidential between the group members and, as a result, build enormous trust. I’ve heard stories about dealing with racism and the deaths of loved ones, recollections about inspiring mentors, unusual job opportunities, and more. It’s a great way to deepen the relationships among your team.

2. Storytelling

Building upon the lifeline exercise, encourage people to tell a meaningful story about their life in front of a larger group. One of the most memorable sessions we ever had at a company retreat was to hold a storytelling night in front of a campfire. Ten people from the company had volunteered to tell a powerful story from their life in front of the whole company, which they had rehearsed beforehand. The stories we heard that night had us laughing and sobbing and appreciating the courage of the people who were willing to share so much of themselves. And their willingness to be exposed made everyone more willing to be open with each other.

3. Appreciations

One of the most effective techniques I have seen to build trust within a group is appreciations. At the end of a project or an off-site meeting, we ask the group to share things they appreciate about each other. We go around the circle, giving each person a few minutes to be appreciated. The rest of the group can chime in with reasons why they appreciate that person, ideally using specific examples. The whole group isn’t required to speak, but I’ve found there are usually more people who want to talk than time available. Don’t get me wrong: It’s awkward to be publicly appreciated by people. It’s not something that most of us have experienced or are comfortable with. But it is also extremely moving. We so rarely take the time to tell others in our lives why we appreciate and admire them that when we do, it’s unexpectedly powerful.

These types of activities build deeper and more meaningful relationships among co-workers, which then helps you work more effectively together. I’ve noticed that it helps with conflict resolution in particular; the stronger the foundational relationship between two people, the more easily these conflicts are resolved or avoided altogether. And knowing more about their colleagues helps people assume the best. In fact, lots of people on my teams will tell you that when they come to me with an issue they are having with a colleague, my advice is “first, go have a beer” (or a cup of tea, you get the idea). If you can get to know someone first, then everything after that just comes more easily.

I’ve met some people who are skeptical that these techniques could work in their organization. Often, they tell me that they think these are great ideas and that they see how they could work inside a social change company, but that they couldn’t work elsewhere. I strongly disagree. If we could get engineers and accountants to appreciate these activities, they can work anywhere. Tools that build deeper understanding between people add value to teams of any kind, from universities to traditional businesses to sports teams. After all, underneath our protective Spanx, we are all just human.

Related: How to Connect With Different Personality Types


Excerpted from Purposeful: Are You a Manager or a Movement Starter? by Jennifer Dulski, in agreement with Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Jennifer Dulski, 2018.

Jennifer Dulski image

Jennifer Dulski is Head of Groups and Community at Facebook. In this role, she leads Facebook Groups— a product central to the new Facebook mission to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.

Jennifer is an accomplished leader and entrepreneur, with more than 18 years of experience in both successful startups and big-brand internet companies. Prior to Facebook, Jennifer served as president and COO of Change.org, a social enterprise company that empowers people everywhere to start and win campaigns for change. Under her leadership, Change.org grew from 18 million users to more than 180 million, and many thousands of social change campaigns were successful around the world.

She was an early Yahoo! employee, rising in the ranks over her nine-year tenure to ultimately lead one of the company’s six business units as group VP and general manager of Local and Marketplaces. In 2007, Jennifer left Yahoo! to become CEO of The Dealmap, a mobile, location-based deals site that Google acquired in 2011, making Jennifer the first woman to sell a company to Google. She stayed at Google for nearly two years as a senior executive before joining Change.org.

Jennifer’s new book, Purposeful: Are You a Manager or a Movement Starter?, a rousing guide combining her own experience with stories of other inspiring leaders to show how we all have the power to start movements that matter, was released by Portfolio on May 22.