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  • Writer's pictureAndrea Johnston

5 Tips from 5-Yr Olds on Positive Team Dynamics

Do you know what I love about kids? ​[Spoiler Alert: It’s not their ability to pick up socks from around the house.] But before I digress - allow me to share with you the story of The Neighbourhood Driveway Art Mural.

We live in a part of Canada where everyone has been desperately awaiting the warm weather, so when a sunny day does arrive, the kids immediately head outside to play.

A few weeks back, we had a low-key weekend with not much on the schedule. Over the course of those two days, our kids were constantly in and out of the house; sometimes together and sometimes with other children from around the neighbourhood. It’s the kind of scene we might nostalgically think about when we reflect on our own childhood - if you grew up prior to 1990. I wasn’t there when it happened. At some point, one child decided /suggested/ began colouring the interlocking brick on the driveway with the sidewalk chalk.

Lesson #1: ​Innovation can happen anywhere!

We’ve lived here for over 12 years. Our oldest is almost 10. We have wide open sidewalks on which to colour, draw, or even create a hop scotch board. No one has ever drawn on the driveway. But something about the pattern of the bricks, or the different textured ground or the who-knows-what, drew their attention to colour there that day. Each time we came and went from the house, the mural was getting bigger. We never heard fighting over what colours should go where, or who got to colour at the top vs the bottom. The driveway was their proverbial oyster. All of the kids just dropped by and left again, over the course of the weekend, adding their own mark on the project.

How are we allowing our teams at work to make their mark? The opportunity for innovation within corporate Canada is often a privilege that's given to a few strategic positions at the top. Allowing your staff to bring their ideas for innovation to the table means creating an cultural of openness, where everyone is encouraged to contribute ideas. Your next big business improvement could be sitting with your team right now!

Lesson #2: Human beings are designed for community.

No one told the kids that they needed to collaborate and work together. In fact, there are plenty of spots in the driveway for someone to have broken away to start their own mural elsewhere. But they didn’t. They all wanted to be a part of the project; on their own terms and at their own pace.

Sometimes working with others is so challenging, it leaves us forgetting how much we need people. Not in the moment, and not always in a way that’s even tangible. But a drive towards creating community or finding our tribe is hardwired inside all of us. The sense of belonging is a powerful indicator of personal fulfillment.

Hiring people to work together on a team is hardly the type of deep connection our brains are searching for. And yet, if you've ever made a close friendship with someone you work with, you know it makes heading into the office so much more enjoyable. Is it possible that employee engagement could revolve around personal friendships at the office? Studies say "Yes!". ​As all of the children came and went at different times, they each contributed to the project differently. Some of them stayed a long time, colouring in many bricks at each sitting. Some would like to have coloured more but they had to head home. Others only had the attention span to do 1 or 2 bricks at a time. And it didn’t matter: all efforts were welcome.

Lesson #3: Meeting people at their needs is true teamwork.

None of the children ever got shamed or scolded for colouring too much, or too little. Everyone had full autonomy over how much time and energy they spent working on it. Woah – what a concept! Whoever said that teamwork meant everyone does the same amount? What if we began meeting people at their needs; viewing the idea of teamwork as simply “accepting and valuing the individual contributions of everyone involved”?

This can be applied equally to our teams at work, as it is to our teams in the community or at home. We’ve probably all been guilty of spending time and attention towards calling out people whose share of the workload wasn’t equal to our own. [Guilty as charged!] And yet, if we put that energy into the task at hand, it might already have been completed.

Is it possible that if we started paying the children for their contribution of work - $ per brick - that this would have influenced how much colouring they did? Again, "Yes", but only in the short term. Eventually the excitement of earning money wears off (Or, in the adult world, Daniel Pink talk's about it in terms of standard of essential living being met.) and what used to drive the children to colour and contribute -their intrinsic motivation- is now gone. Of course we can't stop paying employees, but we can start to build work projects and culture around meeting them at their needs!

So who was designated project manager? You guessed it – no one!

The kids working on the driveway mural ranged in age from 4-13. One of them came up with the initial idea. Some of them owned the sidewalk chalk. Someone lived at the house on which it was being produced. And do you know who designated project manager? You guessed it – no one!

Lesson #4: There is freedom in embracing chaos.

Admittedly, there was little structure around producing this art installation: no deadlines to meet, no requirements to uphold or stakeholders to satisfy. That level of freedom lends itself well to operating as a ‘democracy’ of sorts because hierarchy is not required to have fun. ​Life can sometimes bring us these moments of freedom – if we let it. An open-ended timeline, the joy of approaching a task with reckless abandon, the permission to make mistakes, or the joy of not considering them mistakes at all; it’s called “play”. When was the last time you played? ​

It feels so liberating to engage in something "fun" - without structure or timelines or a preplanned agenda. The challenge is "fun" looks a little differently for all of us.

Here is where we advocate for team building. Taking your team outside of the office for something exciting they can work on together that doesn't require them to meet a goal or getting something "right" can be a great way to infuse "fun" into team dynamics. However, here is our word of warning: Team building is a great activity for teams who already work well together, so they can engage in a low-stress task outside the office. Team building is not an activity to help fix the interpersonal dynamics or "staffing issues" that exist within your team! [Psst ... we can help with that though!]

Lesson #5: Everything is temporary!

A few days following the epic weekend of co-creation, the rain came, as it often does for us at this time of year. It washed away the mural completely. If you’d asked any of the children that weekend, toiling away on their knees, chalk in hand, they could have told you that the rain would come. None of them were shocked or upset when the mural got washed away. In fact, I may have been the most broken-hearted of anyone! But they certainly didn’t let the knowledge of this temporary artwork hinder their excitement and enthusiasm to create it in the first place. The good, the bad and the ugly times of life; none of it ever lasts! Parties finish. Businesses close. Buildings crumble. People pass away. It’s a sad reality of the human experience. But I also know this to be true: awkward styles fall out of trend. Bruises heal. Memories of embarrassing moments fade and even wars, eventually, come to an end.

Everything is temporary. Learning and understanding this is part of learning to adapt to change. It's important to remember this during the unpleasant times – trusting that brighter days are still to come. And it’s also a sobering reminder during the good times, to be grateful. To appreciate life’s splendor, in all its fragility and fleetingness. It can be a tough balance; not allowing the end of something to rob us of the joy we feel from the experience itself. Our relationship with time is a fickle friend.

And that is what I love about children. Their willingness to take life at face value. The beautiful naivety that comes with living in the moment. The ability to make space for each other, without governance or comparison. The complete freedom of producing something so wonderful, without needing it to last. Has anyone ever thought about letting children run our workplaces for a while? I mean, sure, there’ll be random, odd socks littered in every open space, as far as the eye can see. But probably a lot of incredibly amazing stuff would happen, too!

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