The Basic Components of Team Building – Facilitation Styles

Yes, the way in which you lead a team building activity will make or break the outcomes. So, let’s look at three facilitation styles: Passive, Instructor, and Active. After examining all three, we will focus on the ‘Active Facilitator’ and combine it with the four goals and purposes to create a complete picture of the facilitation. 

The Passive Facilitator

The passive facilitator will express the expectations, set up the activity using a frame and will have a prepared environment and materials ready. As the game begins the passive leader will sit back and watch. Perhaps he or she will be taking mental notes for the debriefing later, however he or she will not interfere during the course of the activity.

Passive Facilitator Story

Chris wants to do a leadership activity with his class. He knows a few good activities, so he acquires the materials to do one of them. Through this activity Chris hopes to encourage better interpersonal skills in his class. Chris begins by giving the Five Finger Agreement and he sets up the activity with a simple frame. The game begins and Chris carefully observes the group but just as carefully does not interfere with the progress or lack of progress the group experiences.

The activity gets started with the three most dominant members of the class taking charge as they often do. Two of the three leaders are negative leaders who ignore others and don’t take an approach to benefit others; rather it’s more of an exercise in putting attention on themselves. Quickly, these two get bored and sit back. The single positive leader then is able to grab control and involve a few others who are willing to give the activity a shot. Soon, most are involved and the activity ends up a partial success in terms of students meeting the stated goal. Chris watches as a few students lead the rest of the class.

Success or not, the activity is followed by a spirited debriefing where leaders and the team discuss what went well and what didn’t go well. During the discussion the leaders do most of the talking but Chris is able to steer the conversation so that the leaders must listen to others and about how they can improve and involve others. Satisfied, Chris believes that he met his goals.

Benefits and Drawbacks: The groups doing the activity know the stated goal and stated purpose, but the instructor does not have his/her own unstated purpose or goal. Furthermore, no outcome will be achieved that wasn’t already expected by the participants, meaning the usual leaders lead, and the rest follow. 

Going into the activity, the student group already has a well-developed sense of who the leaders are and who the followers are. When team building games are played without manipulating and changing this power structure, what already exists will be reinforced. This can have detrimental effects to a class that has members who are stifled by a dominant few. The passive facilitator will only reinforce whatever leadership currently exists and does not foster new interactions and leadership. 

The Instructor Facilitator

This style of facilitator is very academically similar in how “traditional” academic class experiences may go. For example, a lesson is presented by the teacher followed by practice exercises for the students. The teacher keeps a watchful eye over the students at all times, looking for something to go wrong.  The teacher will swoop in and quickly correct the students before the mistake has even fully taken place. 

In team building, the Instructor style looks like a well-prepared activity with very specific instructions and rules. The Instructor will even give tips and hints to the group by stressing the need for good team building skills such as teamwork, communication effort and so on. All this is done prior to the activity even beginning. Once the game has begun, the Instructor will help students with suggestions, corrections and will often remind students about using good teamwork skills. 

Instructor Facilitator Story

Mary has a well-prepared lesson and activity for the class, from rules all the way to scripted questions for the debriefing.  Mary begins the class with a 10-15 minute lesson of rules, the Five Finger Agreement, and suggestions about how to be successful at the team building game. Mary instructs the group to work on listening to each other and she calls out a few students who she thinks need to work on their listening skills. Next, she instructs students to be sure to “chip in” and participate. Again, Mary calls out students, in a coaching fashion, who she thinks should consider participating more than what they may normally do. One of these students has always been shy, and the other is the classic “always off task” student and a regular behavior problem. 

The activity begins and within moments Mary starts to help by providing more advice and encouraging others to participate. At one point, Mary impedes the progress of the activity by pausing the game. Only her voice can now be heard as she provides some direction about what it is that she would like to see. The students that she called out at the beginning of the activity show little improvement that was requested of them. Also, the off task student was more of a behavior problem than normal. Finally the game concludes and moves into the debriefing phase.

Mary’s list of questions is systematically asked and she receives the answers she is looking for from those who are common contributors during discussions. Team building skills remain a constant theme from start to finish during this session and Mary is pleased with the outcome.

Students may learn about enhancing specific skills though this style of instruction but more likely this learning will not take root, as the game is already demanding most or all of the students’ attention just to complete the task. Team building activities are often hectic, difficult and happen in a small amount of time. By continuing to instruct students during the game a tacit message is sent to the students that there is an expectation of success for the activity. This is the wrong message to send, as the outcome hardly matters! As we have explored in the last chapter, much of the learning and the value will come out during the debriefing session.

Both of these previous styles have their own value. However, the experience can be taken much further by changing how an activity is led. The next example is far more exhaustive and thorough than the previous two. This is the complete successful model of facilitation and, as we will see in the next chapter, is also a foundation for running a classroom with skill and ease.

The Active Facilitator

The predominate characteristic that defines the Active Facilitator is a constant evaluation and reevaluation of the student group during the activity and a manipulation of the parameters of the game (not instructing or directing students) in order to elicit the types of interactions that the Active Facilitator is looking for. The manipulation is not to correct or re-teach; rather active facilitating is to shape and redirect students’ energy towards an outcome that the facilitator is looking for.

The Active Facilitator is using the unstated goal and unstated purpose to make natural leaders into good followers and to make natural followers good leaders. The Active Facilitator does this by studying student interactions and taking small notes during the game. They also make small changes to the game while it is going on based on the student leadership that develops.

The Active Facilitators are always looking for the leaders in the student group. The leaders of the student group are those who are verbally and physically leading the group the direction they desire. Sometimes, the primary leader is negative rather than positive. The negative leader may be attempting to derail the activity or undermine it in more passive ways. Either way, the facilitator is actively identifying both positive and negative leaders.

Once the first natural leaders have been identified, the facilitator will use the frame to adjust the game to force the current leaders into a follower role and force new leadership to rise up. This is achieved by handicapping the leader in some way, again, by using the frame. For example, the facilitator using the Volcano Island frame may suggest to the students that small bugs on the island are harmful and students should beware of being stung or bit. This opens the door during the entire activity for subtle changes to be made and to have the changes fit into the frame of the activity. 

Handicapping is a term used in golf, bowling and elsewhere as a means to describe a point system that helps make all levels of players competitive against each other during head to head play.  It is this reason that handicapping is the term used to limit the dominant leaders to help create an opportunity for others to lead during the team building activity.  

A common way to handicap a participant is to have handkerchiefs on hand, or lengths of cloth 30” x 8” to be used as blindfolds or to tie around limbs that are then designated as unusable. The physical representation of cloth is important to help remind players of the limitations they or others have. Common handicaps include the loss of sight, voice, hearing or limbs. Limiting leaders in such a way helps make them dependent on other’s help and guidance.

Using the frame to help conceal the handicaps’ purpose is important so students are less likely to detect how you are manipulating the game. For example, in the Volcanic Island game, a common handicap might be to use ‘poisonous flies’ that can sting the participant, rendering the chosen student partially disabled. You always want to handicap the leader to force him or her to follow, never handicap the individual who is isn’t much. This is because the choice to handicap them will be not viewed kindly, nor does it achieve your intent. 

Active Facilitator Story

Ryan has chosen a 65-minute class to do two team building activities, one each for the two groups that he has divided his class into on paper prior to class. He has also acquired all the materials he needs including a 2” x 6” x 8’ board of wood from the hardware store, and two red bricks and masking tape to mark off four squares (see diagram). The squares are big enough to have the entire group (10 members) standing in it. The squares get progressively smaller and further apart from numbers one to four as Ryan has made them. The goal of this activity is to move the group across the four squares. The task becomes increasingly difficult as they move from one square to another because of the diminishing size of each square.  

Ryan also prepares by making a class list ready on a clipboard to number the order in which leaders take charge and to take notes on his observations. Perhaps the notes would be about styles of student leadership or anything he had not observed before. 

With materials and his clipboard, Ryan is set, and when class begins Ryan starts by introducing his stated goals and stated purposes. He then takes the students to his chosen location for the activity. This is followed by a spirited and energetic introduction to the Five Finger Agreement. By this time, five to seven minutes have passed in class. 

Four Lily Pads Swamp

Now Ryan begins his directions by using the fantasy theme making the tape squares represent enormous lily pads. The surrounding floor space is now a murky swamp with serpents and piranha waiting for people to fall in. The 2” x 6” x 8’ board of wood doesn’t change and remains a board of wood even in the frame, but with a small problem; the board can’t touch the lily pads or it will get stuck. However, they may use the swamp stones (the red bricks) to help avoid that problem. The group must get across all four pads to safety as the evil, smelly warlock is after them. They have six minutes to go around the lily pads or lose their lives. 

Ryan has group “A” go first, while group “B” sits to watch what happens. As the first group begins, Ryan has already picked out two of the 12, who begin to lead verbally prior to the activity even beginning. Ryan immediately casts a “vocal” spell to render their voices useless. He does this to handicap a leader, while using the frame, and to encourage new leadership to rise up. Frustrated, one of the two leaders stops leading but continues to participate, while the other leader is determined to continue leading, using hand signals and eye contact. Therefore, no new leadership emerges. Ryan, seeing this, casts another spell now shifting from voice to sight. Frustrated, this second leader is blindfolded by another student. 

One after another, leaders rise up and are handicapped only to lose their voice, sight or a limb. Ryan does this slowly to ensure that progress towards the goal is not impeded as the activity goes along. By the time the group reaches the last lily pad only two are fully able-bodied and they take on the leadership role to get the group across.

Ryan commends the group on their work through adversity and gives the group a two minute break and transition time. Meanwhile, he finishes his notes about what he observed and what he wants to ask during the debriefing to bring awareness to his students about knowing when to lead and when to follow. 

We can see from these three fictional stories some of the ways team building activities may be facilitated. However, only Ryan’s story serves as a model for proper facilitation, so we will now go further in depth with the model of the “Active Facilitator.”

The “Active Facilitator” stands out in one critical way. He, continually changes the roles of leaders and followers. Good educational experiences are often described as taking students just beyond what they know by pushing them mentally ‘off balance’, then, providing them an opportunity to regain their balance through effort and practice. This is exactly what the switching of the roles is all about (Vygotsky and “zone of proximal development).  Should students not be taken “off balance” during a team building game, all students will quickly seek to behave in their most familiar and comfortable way. By this, I mean that if students are used to leading, if not interfered with, the students will lead as they always have. The same goes for those who are used to being “team players” or “followers.” Therefore, unless the facilitator changes when students lead and which follow, the students will not learn something new, and their old modes of behavior will be reinforced. 

In the classroom, a more immediate effect of not switching roles during a team building game can be seen. When students are not taken off balance with leadership and their power structures, the students are allowed to perform in their most comfortable manner during a team building game. You will see students interacting in pre-arranged roles. This means the social structures and power structures that students have worked out in a mostly tacit manner among themselves will remain untouched, reinforcing the peer interactions that already exist in your classroom. This will create no new interactions which had been the purpose of this activity being done.

Many of these preexisting social structures are gigantic in their depth and breath. This is evident when you begin to poke around in any classroom. When you ask students who the popular kids are, you will get stories about how specific students hold influence among peer groups for years and how many of these middle school structures were worked out in detail in primary school! 

While working in Madrid, Spain I had a group of 6th graders who were all “strong armed” by one student. He maintained fear with his friends, and his influence stretched out to all students in the 6th grade and beyond. Addressing this problem head-on through two class meetings in each of my three sections of 6th graders, it was clear that everyone wanted out from under his influence. They recognized that they had either been a part of the bullying or a victim since kindergarten! The students also agreed that in the 2nd grade his three closest partners (or deputies as I had referred to them in my mind) in bullying were picked and maintained all the way through the 6th grade. 

Through the team building activities and encouragement of leadership, I openly asked for the new leaders to rise up and begin to change the way people treated each other. I didn’t attack the bully, but did suggest that anyone identified as a bully did also want to have good friends who were not afraid of them and that they would ultimately embrace the change as well. 

While it was not a smooth transition, with plenty of resistance from the main bully, new leadership did rise up and the bully’s influence was dramatically reduced. Two of his three chiefs did ‘defect’ in the spring, coming to me telling me that they were done, and were ready to also be nice to others.  

Why It Works

The inspiration for the idea of fostering new leadership initially came from this true story in my life. 

At 12 I was not athletic, but my friend Tim convinced me that we should join a Boys & Girls Club basketball league and take our daily driveway one on one games to the next level. I was nervous, but joined anyhow. 

As the team practiced and games got underway, I didn’t stand out in athletic ability, skill or leadership. I mixed into the lower half of a 12-member team and I found myself on the bench during many of the games we played. When I entered a game, I was usually lost and nervous and didn’t perform well at all. 

Sometime during the middle of the season, we lost our three best leaders on the team, one to injury, another to suspension and another who quit. This happened rather suddenly and at our first practice following the losses it was clear to the coaches and the teammates alike that we had a huge gap to fill. Still, unsure of myself, I couldn’t have predicted what would happen.

During the scrimmage portion of the practice, I found myself with the ball making plays for the first time. Still short of being a leader, it was a positive step towards it. Two nights later, the same situation arose at practice and this time teammates were looking to me for direction with calling plays and I found myself delivering. Quickly I developed into our team’s leader and ended up making the all-star squad as the representative from my team. 

This sudden turn around came from a kid who had never been a leader of peers, who was generally shy and soft spoken. Within a few weeks, I could feel myself walking differently and seeing opportunities with the team, at school and with friends. This was a major turning point in my life.

While this story is not an unusual one, it does help illustrate what can be fostered with the Active Facilitator style of leadership. You may not change lives every time you facilitate a team building activity, but you will begin to foster new leadership in your class and thus, a greater balance and flexibility of power and leadership within your classes. 


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