Team Training: The Right Kind of Funny

A few weeks ago, the New York Times magazine published an article about what Google learned from its quest— code-named Project Aristotle— to build the perfect team. As a consulting team trainer at one of Silicon Valley’s major companies the past 8 months, I have immersed myself in this quest. Google’s research findings have me particularly enthused as they confirm that my interactive mindfulness trainings are on the right track.

Some of Google’s conclusions:

“what distinguished the ‘‘good’’ teams from the dysfunctional groups was how teammates treated one another…. good teams all had high ‘‘average social sensitivity’’ — a fancy way of saying they were skilled at intuiting how others felt based on their tone of voice, their expressions and other nonverbal cues.”

Google’s data indicated that psychological safety, defined as a ‘‘shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking, more than anything else, was critical to making a team work.

Psychological safety is ‘‘a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up,’’ Edmondson wrote in a study published in 1999. ‘‘It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.

In my  line of work, high social sensitivity and the ability to create an atmosphere of psychological safety are prerequisites. Awareness, listening and strong non-verbal communication skills are what we develop through methodologies I have used in the health care world. According to Google’s research, these skills are exactly what’s needed for effective team work. However Google, and many other corporate entities, might be challenged by the current negativity surrounding my field…which is…Clowning.

If scary images of overly made-up, obnoxiously loud, insensitive, immature characters come to mind, please travel further back in time than the media maelstrom of the past 50 years—which has popularized a very stereotyped and mostly negative image of clown. Blame it on Ronald McDonald, John Wayne Gacy, Stephen King’s It and any other hosts of contenders. The majority of the world has forgotten that clowning is about the funny, that there is a finer, more subtle and smart version of clown circulating in the corridors of the theater, one who has audiences laughing night after night.

Clown is unique in the performing arts in that audience interaction is part of the game, and their level of enjoyment often determines the performer’s next steps. If something that’s usually funny isn’t getting any laughs, the good clown will move on rather than dig a hole in the ground. Thus the clown’s eyes, ears, and all their senses are listening for the subtlest of cues. These clowns have great capacity for non-verbal communication. Most having spent years training in physical/ movement/gestural theater, in voice, mime, tai chi…in my case butoh dance….

One thing that may surprise the reader is that these clowns are all about mindfulness—yes, it’s a hot topic these days. Clowns have a somewhat different version of mindfulness as their awareness is more focused on being present with others, on their outward interactions rather than inner navel gazing. This is especially true of the thousands of healthcare clowns around the world, who work in children’s wards and elder homes, where the main game is often personal interaction in intimate settings rather than full view on stage.

Perhaps Interactive Mindfulness is a good term. Whereas many mindfulness practices are centered around meditation with objectives of stress reduction, resilience, self-inquiry; here the objectives are on presence, social sensitivity and authentic interaction. In this context, humor acts as a facilitator, lubricant and communicator for mutual understanding.

Can humor be a useful tool for teams seeking to create an atmosphere of ‘interpersonal trust, mutual respect in which people are comfortable with themselves’ ?? If the humor is kind, well meaning, and looking to uplift the group, It certainly can. Perhaps it’s helpful to think in terms of constructive (vs destructive) humor.  So far, my team training results definitely point in that direction. I certainly wouldn’t be crafting these words if I didn’t think so.

Given  traditional hierarchical management structures, if one wishes for a culture where people feel comfortable being themselves, the structure they work in, the upper management and corporate culture need to be fully supportive. There has to be a very strong wish for employees to feel comfortable being themselves, to remove the pressures causing people to put on a ‘work’’ mask to protect themselves.

One must also factor in cultures and upbringing where ‘just being themselves’ at work is not initially perceived as an option. Early on in our training sessions in Silicon Valley, I was informed by one of our Indian participants that in India, showing emotions of any kind at work was not considered professional.

As I continue to develop team training methods, I  occasionally glance over to the mindfulness movement to see what approaches they might be taking.

Here is a paragraph from the latest program offering, Engage, from Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, of one of leaders in corporate mindfulness training:

Mindfulness-based emotional intelligence practices help individuals increase well-being, decrease stress and become more resilient. Through mindful communication practices, individuals can improve how they relate and collaborate with one another, the result being more enjoyable and effective teamwork.

Wonderful to read, several things caught my eye:
-One is the use of the word enjoyable connected to effective teamwork.
-Another is the phrase mindful communication.
A third is the word practices.

Starting backwards, the word practices is vital for teams, as in something one practices on a regular basis, to ensure ongoing collaboration  requires ongoing training.

How does one communicate mindfully?  It’s a hot topic. Being fully present with each other, AND really hearing what the other is saying.  Hard not to start formulating words/responses in one’s brain—which would remove one from being fully present.

I have practiced council, where the group sits together in a circle, passes a talking stick. The instructions are to speak  (and listen) from the heart, and only the person with the stick speaks. It’s a most wonderful way for a group to communicate deeply. For a time-stressed engineering team, this might not be the best option. What happens in a more spontaneous, and busy, environment?

After all, speaking from the heart may also not be exactly what the software engineers signed up for.

As the NY Times points out:
But the kinds of people who work at Google are often the ones who became software engineers because they wanted to avoid talking about feelings in the first place.

Yet even without meditation,  the ability to place their awareness outwards is important for collaboration. As mentioned earlier on, developing the capacity to be present—without an engaged thinking mind—does require practice, something akin to the Zen practice Menmitsu. With my team, we use juggling as an active form of mindfulness. No, it doesn’t take you to the same place as meditation, but that is another story.

From my perspective, that of clown and physical theater, the answer to mindful communication is obvious: remove words from the equation. Develop non-verbal expressiveness, and bring lightness to the table. Devise methods/structures/exercises for co-workers develop common non-verbal language, infused with humor and good will.

Expressiveness is explored at various ‘volumes’, from great exaggeration to light subtlety, I think you can guess which is ultimately the most useful tool. One of the major side-benefits for the team members are their interaction skills outside the immediate work environment, at conferences; as well as devising and offering public presentations.Create methods to enjoy resolving tensions. There is far more to say here but I have been going on for  a while now…

Before I go let me tie up one loose end, about that first point of linking enjoyment and effectiveness.  I have found that physical theater and clowning is both fun and offers great expressive tools to use in the workplace, pathways that ease rather than exacerbate tensions. I have also found that teams having fun together tend to like being around each other more.

For example, in the training, the team members have loud and spirited arguments without saying a word, and having great fun doing it. Having fun being angry with each other?? Could that possibly decrease tensions, stress, and result in a more enjoyable and effective teamwork? Yes!  By focusing on the funny, the arguers discover their ability to enjoy the disagreement,   to not take themselves too seriously and develop skills in listening, in awareness, in expression, and in positive connection to their co-workers.

A few years ago, I was teaching a workshop at the Tassajara Mountain Zen Center.  In the closing circle, one of the participants, a business consultant, expressed his amazement at how much humor he could convey with just a look. Perhaps that look is worth a thousand words…

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