“Weak Ties” Will Make You Stronger—and Team-Building Games Can Help

Or how to manage like Steve Jobs on a fraction of the budget

Help can appear in surprising places. That guy on the elevator in Accounting might have a key piece of information you need. That woman from the eighth floor you run into in the mailroom might know the freelancer who can solve your problems. Perhaps that intern with the crazy shoes knows an iPhone trick to save you some buffering suffering.

But if you never speak with these people, you’ll never know what keys they have to unlock your problems. And who’s to say what you know that can help them find a breakthrough?

Business experts and sociologists alike are turning increasing attention on the importance of weak ties—your casual, informal relationships. Not your inner circle of close friends and family, but the people just beyond that orbit. The New York Times (to take one example) recently reported on “Why You Need a Network of Low-Stakes, Casual Friendships”: Studies show that weak ties increase well-being, helping us to feel more connected and to be more empathetic.

In the workplace, the quality and number of connections between colleagues make a surprising difference. In the new book How to Win in a Winner-Take-All World, Neil Irwin looks at the latest data on employee well-being in a variety of large companies. Among the findings in a study at Microsoft: “People who made lots of contacts across departments tended to have longer, better careers within the company,” Irwin writes in The New York Times. “There was even an element of contagion, in that managers with broad networks passed their habits on to their employees.”

The workplace benefits of weak ties

Employee well-being is great, of course, but the benefits go beyond that. “Weak ties serve as bridges: They provide more efficient access to new information,” management expert Adam Grant writes in his acclaimed book Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success. “Our strong ties tend to travel in the same social circles and know about the same opportunities as we do. Weak ties are more likely to open up access to a different network, facilitating the discovery of original leads.”

Steve Jobs knew the importance of weak ties. He famously made sure the design of Apple’s headquarters provided plenty of opportunities for employees to mix and mingle and collaborate. Jobs aimed for “a more porous structure where ideas would be more freely shared across common spaces,” as Wired reported. The very layout fosters cross-pollination, the better for new ideas and solutions to bloom.

But not everyone has carte blanche to build a new headquarters or even just rearrange the office layout. Even moving the coffee machine can pose headaches. So what can you do now that can affect the quality and number of weak ties within your company?

Enter team-building activities.


3 tips to ensure the right team building to foster “weak ties”

But not just any team building. You need activities that prompt people who don’t know each other to interact—preferably while having fun. Sure, throwing a party or taking the gang to the game can be entertaining, but in such loose, unstructured outings most people stick with their clique—the colleagues they already have strong bonds with. Coming up with reasons to talk to someone in a different department can be difficult or even awkward.

Instead, find a team-building game that lets you set up the teams to mix people from various departments. There’s no loss for conversation when teammates must search for clues, discuss strategy, or brainstorm creative ways to meet the game’s challenges.

Even better, find a game that promotes laughter, the universal social lubricant. Few things break the ice like a shared joke or humorous situation.

Also, choose a game with a level playing field. No one has fun or opens up when they are worried they are going to humiliate themselves. Leave vigorous activity for the gym.

After sharing a team-building activity, the group will still be talking about it back at the office. And who knows where those new conversations will lead? You might have met the person who’s going to help with your next breakthrough idea.

Bret Watson is the founder and president of Watson Adventures LLC., providers of acclaimed team-building scavenger hunts since 1999.