The 4 Most Important Words in Team Building

One of General George Washington’s greatest achievements might have been not attacking. And it wasn’t his idea.

At the start of the war, the colonial troops had the British isolated in Boston, which was virtually an island except for one narrow neck of land connecting it to the mainland. Washington’s aggressive instincts usually led him to favor an attack, and in this case, he thought his troops could charge across the ice. But he did a very smart thing: He assembled his generals and asked, “What do you think?”

His generals saved his butt. A full-on attack across the ice and the narrow neck, into the face of the well-defended British position, probably would have brought an early, failed end to the revolution. Washington’s advisors told him to wait, and together, they found another way to make the British retreat.

Four Little Words

“What do you think?” are probably the four most powerful yet underused words in teamwork and corporate team building activities. When we run our scavenger hunts, in which colleagues compete on teams to find answers to tricky questions about what they find in museums and historic neighborhoods, we often overhear groups at the finish line making this discovery: They got some questions wrong because one person had a hunch that the others had missed something but that person didn’t want to speak up.

Getting in line with what the team wants is often a good thing. After all, a team ultimately needs to march in the same direction. But is it the right direction? Should you charge across the ice into the face of cannons or listen to the people who are saying to hold off? Here are three advantages of deploying the phrase “What do you think?” and its variants when making a decision.

1. Benefit from the “wisdom of crowds”  

At county fairs, when people are asked to enter a contest to guess the weight of a cow (or beans in a jar, or any other random, unknown number), the average of the crowd typically will come closer to the truth than any individual’s guess. This works best when everyone participates. Obviously you don’t want to rely on a crowd when the question involves, say, rocket science—unless that crowd includes actual rocket scientists—but in most other cases, the best answer usually comes out when everyone is chipping in.

2. Avoid groupthink

The famous example that gave rise to that phrase was President Kennedy’s disastrous decision to invade the Bay of Pigs in Cuba. In retrospect, it was discovered that many of his advisors had reservations but didn’t speak up. Why? They wanted to get behind the growing power of those who were in favor of the invasion.

You need to give the skeptics a chance to voice their opinions and make sure they aren’t trying to be team players in silence. This is particularly important for the team leader. By asking “What do you think?,” you indicate that you want to hear everyone’s opinion. And then you’d better follow through by actually listening. You don’t have to agree, of course, but you should indicate that you’ve listened. A simple “Got it” as a reply can suffice. If you argue or shoot down the person speaking up, you’ve set a bad precedent and defeated the long-term purpose.

3. Get insight into your teammates

When people speak up, sometimes the reasons behind their ideas and observations are more interesting and valuable than the ideas themselves. Plus, when someone speaks up about a problem, some detail she has noticed might strike someone else, and finding the solution may become easier. If you’re a manager, you’ve also now gained insight into how both of those team members think.

What do you think?

We think these tips should help you, whether you’re on a team-building exercise like a scavenger hunt or back in the office. But what do you think? Share your thoughts with us on Facebook or LinkedIn.