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Retreat Exercises and Interventions that Changed Organizational Cultures: Unexpected Discoveries

Last week produced a “déjà vu” experience although it was definitely not the “déjà vu all over again” variety. For only the second time in my speaking career I received unanticipated feedback from participants of a workshop two or more years after the actual event. This is not trivial as one of the challenging aspects of being a speaker and “Motivational Psychohumorist” ™ is whether my entertaining “soft skills” programs have any tangible long-term consequences. Delayed feedback is especially meaningful when the workshop or conference event is a one shot effort or there isn’t a planned follow-up.

Before illustrating the present let me fondly recall the past. About five years ago, at a conference for various legal professionals, a manager from a large DC law firm greeted me: “Hello, Stress Doc.” Upon seeing my sheepishly puzzled grin, she continued. “Don’t you remember you spoke to the managers of our law firm…And we did the drawing exercise?” (First, the two-hour workshop had likely been held four or five years prior. To further clarify, the aforementioned exercise, now named my “Three ‘D’ – Discussion-Drawing-Diversity – Team Building Exercise,” is the closing showstopper at most speaking and workshop events. Basically it asks groups of 4-6 participants to identify sources of everyday workplace stress and conflict or to list barriers to more effective and creative team coordination. After ten minutes of discussion people are given an equal amount of time to transform their verbal ideas into a visual story or metaphoric image, e.g., a sinking ship, a slippery mountain slope, a three-ring circus, a menacing “troublesaurus” stalking the workers at a plant, etc. Participants then do a “gallery walk” eyeballing their colleagues’ images without discussing their team’s creation. Finally, each group selects a spokesperson and holder for the “show and tell.” Of course I remind the groups, “Don’t everybody volunteer to be a holder!” The closing exercise invariably becomes a “Show and Tell morphing into an ‘Aha,’ ‘I’m Not Alone’ and Lampooning Laughter” experience. It’s a visceral-verbal-visual four “c”-ing event – building “camaraderie, collaboration, creativity and community.”)

Enough background, let’s return to the manager’s story. Once again my silence triggered another question and explanation: “Don’t you remember our “stress picture” and what you said?” My look must have said, “Tell me more.” She continued: “Our group drew these pigeons overhead with people standing below. And raining down on the crowd were these brown pellets. Then, before we could comment further, you chimed in with, ‘Oh, Raisinets.’”

While I was mentally patting myself on the back, the woman shared the real impact of the experience beyond her personal vivid memories and my clever reframe. As it turned out, the exercise became woven into the corporate culture. Whenever a stress or crisis issue arose that disrupted all the managers, the head of the managers would buy a box of Raisinets for all the participants. Talk about keeping workshop meaning, morale and momentum alive. Now that’s an “emotionally intelligent” leader!

The Name Game

The second vignette involved my leading a day-long “Team Building” offsite for managers of an IT Division of the Department of Commerce in July 2011. I had led a somewhat similar retreat with this group two years earlier. For the 2011 retreat I wanted to use a different opening – my “Three ‘B’ Stress Barometer” Exercise. Basically, groups of three or four discuss, “How does your ‘Brain, Body and Behavior’ let you know when you’re under more stress than usual?” However, the “Three B’s” didn’t have a chance.

The manager’s group clamored for our 2009 icebreaker: “The Nickname Exercise.” They enthusiastically recited names that two years later are still in play and continue to evoke peals of laughter. Now they desired to give nicknames to the new managers; some folks even wanted to do a personal name upgrade. (These are IT geeks and gurus after all!) All this banter provided incontrovertible evidence of the Director’s pithy observation: “That exercise really stuck!”

Let me outline the exercise. In small groups, team members interview each other, trying to discern quirky yet essential or even contradictory aspects of a personality or character. Nicknames often reflect a person’s passion or talent, while gently skewering the same. I especially like ones which have a playfully teasing or self-effacing quality. The best of them are usually visual and alliterative and may be a play on words. Two years before I had provided some examples: “The Splendid Splinter” (lean and lanky baseball legend, Ted Williams), “The Louisville Lip” (Cassius Clay’s nickname before he became Mohammed Ali and “The Greatest”) or “Sitting Bull” (which was, of course, not a nickname but his Native American appellation). Since then, I’ve added to my repertoire. One day a Ft. Hood 1st Sergeant who had witnessed my animated speaking style told his colleagues, “The Doc is a ‘firecracker.’” Then a month later, another workshop participant commented on my meaningful, “philosophical” approach to subject matter. Now a personal moniker (in addition to “Stress Doc,” provided me years ago by the TV Editor of the New Orleans’ Times Picayune) jumped out: Philosophical Firecracker! The nickname aptly captures a Yin-Yang duality – having both an introspective (cave) and extraverted (stage) nature.

Returning to our IT Managers, these folks came up with a bounty of nicknames, both past and present: “Hit and Run,” (a troubleshooting consultant), “Southern Comfort,” (a name reflecting both family geography and a mostly soft spoken, empathic temperament) and “The Logical Lotus” (an analytical Asian woman). Some people had been anticipating this exercise, one fellow changed his to “The Great Kudzu” (as he has to be everywhere; I don’t recall his original name), another Director chose “Crazy Glue” over “Super Glue” (though it was clear he was viewed as instrumental in keeping the division together, if just barely, on the functional side of “more work than can ever be managed” chaos).

Still…Not the Whole Story

While the Nickname Exercise had staying power, this time around it was our beginning and ending process that truly was empowering. By going with the group flow and frolic and delaying my planned opening agenda, we all immediately began to bond. And clearly, I was comfortable sharing the reins of control with the group. An unspoken question often hovering in the retreat workshop shadows: what is the optimal balance between spontaneity and structure?

After “Nickname: Part II,” I orchestrated a series of exercises culminating in one that would have small groups problem solving division-specific issues related to communication and role-boundary-follow-up breakdowns. Just as I was about to introduce this problem-solving exercise, “The Logical Lotus” asked if we could begin addressing communication and coordination issues specific to the group. Clearly, the managers and I were converging towards the same spontaneous-structured agenda page. And my subsequent role transition from workshop leader to group process observer-participant, actually sharing the facilitator role and once again following the group’s lead, appeared critical to our evolving success as a working partnership. Consider these illustrative testimonials:

U.S. Department of Commerce | International Trade Administration
[One-day Management Retreat/team building workshop/facilitation for 15 Information Technology Division Managers, Glen Allen, VA]

July 12, 2011

Thanks Mark. I too appreciated the way you let us run with our own issues during the second half of our session, and agree with you that between the two of us, we helped the group produce some useful outcomes.

The challenge now is follow up. Haha!

I’ve got a return engagement for you on our list of follow-up actions, so I’m hoping it will not be too far in the future. It sounded like the fall would be a realistic time.

Thanks for your contribution to our team in the two sessions we have had with you. It has been fun and productive.

Rod Smart
Director, IT Policy and Coordination
Office of the CIO
U.S. Department of Commerce | International Trade Administration

July 8, 2011

Hello Mark,

Thank you for bending your program backwards to help us applying your approach to our daily problems. I think we understood better and learned more solid both our problems and your approach. Your facilitation pushed us to think, take actions, and be accountable for result.

Thank you for including me in your newsletter list. I’m looking forward to learning more your wisdom and approach.


Haiping Lou
[Editor’s note: “The Logical Lotus”]


Closing Summary

Two vignettes unexpectedly reveal the staying power of group exercises as well as their impact on organizational culture. The discoveries were illustrated by chance and planned encounters which enabled reflecting on past experience as well as understanding and going with the group process flow. Key factors include: a) interactive and imaginative exercises that allow for participants to poke playful fun, b) meaningful sharing and creative interplay strengthening a sense of camaraderie and community, and c) the leader or facilitator recognizing the meaning of the interchange while acknowledging and following the group’s pain and passion, energy and ideas. Words to cultivate a collaborative culture and to help one and all…Practice Safe Stress!

Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, “The Stress Doc” ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote & kickoff speaker, webinar presenter, as well as “Motivational Humorist & Team Communication Catalyst” known for his interactive, inspiring and FUN programs for both government agencies and major corporations. In addition, the “Doc” is a team building and organizational development consultant. He is providing “Stress and Communication, as well as Managing Change, Leadership and Team Building” programs for the 1st Cavalry Division and 13th Expeditionary Support Command, Ft. Hood, Texas and for Army Community Services and Family Advocacy Programs at Ft. Meade, MD and Ft. Belvoir, VA as well as Andrews Air Force Base/Behavioral Medicine Services. Mark has also rotated as a Military & Family Life Consultant (MFLC) at Ft. Campbell, KY. A former Stress and Violence Prevention Consultant for the US Postal Service, The Stress Doc is the author of Practice Safe Stress and of The Four Faces of Anger. See his award-winning, USA Today Online “HotSite”www.stressdoc.com — called a “workplace resource” by National Public Radio (NPR). For more info on the Doc’s “Practice Safe Stress” programs or to receive his free e-newsletter, email [email protected] or call 301-875-2567.


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