Editor’s Note: In 2023 we’re going to introduce several guest bloggers. This blog post on games and culture was written by Alex Suchman (she/her), cofounder and CEO of Barometer XP. If you’re interested in being a guest blogger, let us know.
The word culture is used a lot these days. But what does it really mean? Is it a company’s values displayed on an office wall? Allowing flexible work schedules? Hosting monthly happy hours?
Technically, the answer to each of those questions is “yes,” but those examples are just barely scratching the surface.
What Is Culture, Really
One way to think about culture is how employees feel about their work environment,their managers and colleagues, their workload, and their potential for growth and development. Culture is not just how they feel when everything is going well.
Another way to think about culture is whether various characteristics of the work environment help or hinder employees’ ability to successfully do their jobs. In a strong culture, employees feel like they have access to the tools, information, and expertise they need to carry out their workload. In a struggling culture, employees feel like they are hitting unnecessary roadblocks at every turn.
Why the Small Stuff Matters
Employees experience culture as the sum of all the small things – good and bad – that happen on a day-to-day, week-to-week basis.
If, on the whole, employees feel like they can expect to be treated well and are confident that they have all the resources they need, they will stay engaged and motivated.
If employees don’t feel like they are respected or being treated fairly, or that they are being set up to fail, there’s a good chance they are not going to be fully engaged or motivated for long.
How to Build a Healthy Culture Foundation
Fortunately, the way to build the foundation for a healthy culture is simple: build strong relationships by spending time together, doing something other than work.
Purely social events are fine, but structured activities like games are even better for facilitating meaningful connections, because they allow for people to participate in different ways based on their comfort levels.
The problem with purely social events like happy hours or conference-room lunches is that they are largely unstructured, so they don’t offer a break from existing relationship dynamics. For example, junior staff members may cluster together because they feel intimidated engaging in social conversations with senior staff. Or employees who are more introverted may feel shut out from conversations, because the extroverts naturally take over.
Make Room for Play
Games impose their own rules for engagement, making them great at catalyzing new kinds of conversations and connections:
- If it’s a game that no one has played before, everyone is on equal footing – regardless of position – as they figure out the rules and strategy together.
- A game’s clear goals and instructions make participating more inviting for newer or more introverted colleagues.
- The shared sense of purpose within games temporarily removes existing roles, allowing for connection up, down, and all across the org chart.
Picking the Right Game
There are thousands of games out there of all different kinds. So how do you choose what game to play to strengthen relationships and trust among colleagues?
Every game is a small problem-solving opportunity that requires different ways of thinking and engaging. Before you select a game, think about what kinds of interactions you want to encourage, or what kind of atmosphere you want to cultivate for the team.
- Are you looking to encourage socializing, so colleagues can find things to talk about outside of work? You may want a game that brings up stories, like Name that Tune or a Scavenger Hunt.
- Do you want to highlight different ways of communicating, so colleagues can better understand different communication styles? You may want a game like Charades or Fishbowl that requires non-verbal communication skills and quick-thinking.
- Do you just need to laugh together and experience some joyful moments as a team? Try a silly game like Telestrations.
The interpersonal dynamics in games often mirror the dynamics at work, which is why we created the pressure matrix, a tool to connect the individual experience with broader elements of team culture.
Use Games Wisely
In addition to focused fun, games can also provide a valuable way to learn more about your colleagues’ strengths, perspectives, and skill sets. Games help see behavioral and relational patterns in a new light, which can spark great ideas for how to work together even better.
If you’re looking to add reflection and applied learning to your game session, you may want to bring in an outside facilitator, and make sure to leave plenty of time to debrief the game experience. A few great reflective questions are:
- How did this game make you think, or feel?
- What did you notice about how different people approached the game?
- What skills and strengths helped us succeed as a team?
- How can we leverage those skills in our work?
Games provide moments for teams to have fun while working towards a common goal, which in turn helps them get to know each better and trust each other more. And that’s the foundation for healthy culture.
About our guest author:
Alex Suchman (she/her) is cofounder and CEO of Barometer XP, a company that drives real behavior and culture change through games and play.
After a decade of experience working in operations and organizational development, Alex realized that building stronger emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills are key to organizational success. She noticed a gap in the industry for solutions that bridge the knowledge-to-action gap, and discovered game-based experiential learning for teams as an effective tool.
Prior to BXP, Alex founded AIS Collaborations, a consulting firm that helped small organizations through simple systems, stronger organizing techniques, and better planning.