Building Trust Through the Creation of Conflict

Recently, I had the opportunity to participate in an exciting exercise designed to build trust. Using items I found around the office, I created an obstacle course that teams had to guide a blindfolded team member through. Many people have probably participated in this activity, or one very similar to it, on a retreat or at a leadership training event. The activity stresses the importance of communication and trust because people must give clear, verbal instructions to their teammates, who must in turn listen to and trust the instructions, in order to get through the course successfully.

My role did not end at creating the course because I was also the official scorekeeper, and my prime directive, given to me by my boss, was to create conflict. I changed up the course between groups, assigned random, unexplained time penalties for rule infractions (I did not always explain the rules), and talked over groups as they tried to lead people through the course. The team with the fastest time won solely because I improved its time by 23 seconds after team members communicated with each other in Spanish. I had no plans to reward teams for communicating in a different language, but I figured why not!

While teams did not argue with me during the course of the round, once we all came together and revealed each team’s time, people began to complain about my poor time keeping skills (mission accomplished!). Even though people complained about the fairness of the activity for a little while, the bulk of the debrief was spent listening to teams complement each other about the clear directions and about how willing people were to trust each other.

In the end, I learned a lot about trust and communication through observing our leadership team complete the exercise. Participants worked quickly to determine, or naturally fell into, certain roles on their respective teams, which allowed them to avoid the problem of having too many people clamoring over each other. The blindfolded people completely trusted the people guiding them, which helped every team to complete the exercise with few missteps. Teams also spent more time building each other up and focusing on each other’s strengths than they did on the fairness of their scores.

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