Team bonding questions to improve teamwork and build trust
Have you ever worked on a team where everything just clicked? Where people respected each other’s roles and contributions but also found time to enjoy each other’s personality? When you’re lucky enough to be on one of these dream job teams, more teamwork gets done, being at work is more enjoyable, and you develop habits of greater productivity.
It’s not a coincidence—studies show that all those happy brain chemicals like dopamine and oxytocin flow better when team members like each other. For managers, creating a team that gels can be fun and rewarding. It’s also good for business, as where teams flourish, so do their respective companies.
This isn’t a new idea. Most leaders want fun teams with a cooperative working relationship that opens up creativity and yields more exciting business outcomes. So what’s the secret? How can managers build trust among their teams to get the most out of them?
One way is for leaders to ask insightful questions that invite responses and expose a little bit of each person’s personality. In this blog, we’re talking about some questions leaders can ask that get the ball rolling and help teams start to work better together.
Interesting icebreaker questions
Let’s start with a notoriously overused opener: tell me about yourself.
Somehow, decades of use have not worn this question out or led to better, more creative questions. Because it’s open-ended and aimless, “tell me about yourself” invites all kinds of different responses, most of which are irrelevant to what you actually want to know.
Asking someone to tell about themselves is essentially asking for an in-person résumé, leading to walls going up and sending sincerity into hiding. Those asking the questions often end up clarifying and redirecting to get better answers.
Have we been conditioned to be cautious of this question? It’s been asked at just about every job interview in history, to the point where its tone feels more interrogative than lighthearted and fun. Still, many people are used to answering it, so if you can’t resist asking it, give your own answer as an example first. Show the right way to respond so the rest of your team has a roadmap to follow.
Better, though, is to find more compelling or funny icebreaker questions to ask.
Here are a few alternatives to “tell me about yourself”:
What have you been working on?
How did you get started in your field?
What’s something you’re proud of?
What are some social changes you’ve noticed over the last decade?
How have you, yourself, changed over the last decade?
What’s one of your favorite TV shows?
What’s one of your favorite guilty pleasures?
Each of these examples offers tangible objectives that create channels for a clear and decisive response. Rather than asking them to figure out what you mean, their brains are already searching excitedly for a fun way to answer and represent how they want to be perceived.
Getting more specific to teams
There are only upsides to teammates having a good working relationship. Yes, some of the best teams do good work without being friends, but those with friends at work are less likely to seek employment elsewhere or suffer burnout.
For leaders, creating a comfortable environment that opens up relationships pays dividends in the long run. One way to motivate team members to build those working relationships is by getting together in groups and conversing.
Note: team building activities are not a time to discuss work and how to do it better. Rather, these gatherings give each person a chance to share a little about themselves without the pressure of looking productive.
Here are some great questions to ask groups in informal settings:
If you could magically swap jobs with someone else for a day, who would it be and why?
If we were all stranded on a desert island, which team member would have the most unique survival skill?
What’s the most unexpected or unusual skill or hobby you have?
What is your go-to karaoke song?
If you could have a conversation with any historical figure, who would it be and what would you ask them?
If you had to describe your personality as a color, what color would it be, and why?
If you could design your dream home, what would it include?
The idea here isn’t so much to assess and evaluate each person’s answer as it is to exercise their creativity. And when people start getting creative, they begin to enjoy each other’s personalities more, which can lead to greater employee engagement.
The most effective questions for teams aren’t the ones that yield the best answers (though they often do result in amazing ideas), but the seemingly random ones that open up hearts and minds little by little.
When to ask team-based questions
Creativity is a process, and it takes effort to get brains headed in that direction. Good questions can help unlock this process to get it going, but if they are interrupted by work, it’ll take time to start moving in that direction. This is why questions need to be targeted for specific times and situations.
Like any management strategy, overuse is detrimental to effectiveness. Some managers default to asking questions—especially if the initial results are positive—but this can turn moments for leadership into awkward silences and pet peeves. There’s a right time and place to invite creativity.
Valuable opportunities to ask team bonding questions include:
Team-building exercises. Probably the most obvious time to ask group questions is when bringing a group together, either for the first time or periodically. Introducing a few clever questions into team-building exercises and games can help cultivate friendships that work better to pull toward a common goal.
Breaking the ice. Introducing new team members or forming altogether new teams can benefit from creative questions. Ideally, these questions occur in group settings (such as virtual icebreakers for remote teams). For new team members who are joining an existing group, provide time for them to plan a creative response if they are to answer on their own.
Virtual meetings. In a post-COVID world of remote work, more and more team meetings take place virtually. This is just fine: virtual team building activities are as good as any for asking questions and bridging the physical gap.
One-on-one meetings. Leaders can also use creative questions as a way to foster deeper connections with team members. One-on-ones and mentoring sessions are a great time to learn more about each person’s personality and help cultivate a better working relationship.
Onboarding and orientation. Starting at a new job is always a little jarring. Incorporating team bonding questions into the onboarding process can help new team members integrate into their teams more smoothly.
When conflict arises. Team bonding questions are also useful in solving problems. When conflicts or misunderstandings arise, good questions can help team members reconnect and rebuild trust.
Good questions are as much about relevance as they are about timing. Using them in the right settings will help team members open up more without feeling put on the spot.
Let’s be clear: asking questions is hard! A little vulnerability is required to direct the flow of conversation, and you won’t always get it right. Practice makes perfect though, and the more you understand how good questions lead to productive responses, the easier it’ll be to try again.
Using follow-up questions
The questions up until now have been starting points for creative and collaborative thinking. They work well for introducing a mindset, but they aren’t always enough to keep a conversation going. Follow-up questions are essential to keeping that train going. They allow people to explain themselves further and ensure they are heard the way they want to be.
“What makes you say that?” or “why do you think that?” are great options—rather than taking a simple answer at face value, follow-up questions investigate the effects of their thinking.
Following up on a simple answer like “I’m a perfectionist” leads to answers like, “I spend a lot of time double- and triple-checking my work because I’m afraid of making a mistake and disappointing my boss.”
Some people will answer vaguely. Others answer with curt responses that effectively close the conversation and keep things from progressing. Follow-up questions fill the role of politely insisting that the flow of conversation continues.
Sometimes you have to put yourself in the “I’m stupid” seat and ask for more clarification: “Sorry, just want to be clear—when you say, ‘it is what it is,’ do you mean these circumstances are unavoidable?”
Offer an example of the response you’re looking for. “I want to understand this in detail—could you explain what you mean by that?”
Open-ended questions aren’t the only solution here, either. You may wish to direct the conversation to help team members understand the different opinions that surround them.
This is done through closed questions, such as:
Are you satisfied with our team’s current workflow?
Do you have any suggestions to help us get more work done?
What’s the biggest hang-up in your day-to-day routine?
If there’s something you want to bring up with the group, closed questions can save time and get to the point sooner.
When questions aren’t just business
Questions aren’t innocent. They are based on specific premises that reflect the asker’s own bias. On top of that, some questions can mislead or misrepresent another person’s views, so it’s important to stay as objective and open as possible.
When leaders ask questions that bring up someone’s shortcomings or weaknesses, they not only invite negative and unproductive responses, but they can engender mistrust and weaken the team’s overall strength. Not good.
Tone is critical. It’s easy to detect when someone wants to make you look bad and it feels awful. Many leaders understand this intuitively, but some feel they can only command respect by making others look weak. Don’t do it.
There are plenty of ways to address problems without putting an individual on the spot. Criticism is usually best handled privately, but it can be done tactfully in group settings.
Some basic strategies for asking open questions involving criticism include:
Expanding the scope of the question. Rather than asking, “Did you forget to send this to the client?,” you can reduce some of the pressure by asking, “Is everyone clear on the steps needed to get products to our clients?” It’s simple but it works.
Asking about examples of mistakes made at work. Everyone has an embarrassing story about completely dropping the ball at their job. By inviting everyone to share, people who recently messed up will feel a little less pressure to own up to their mistakes and enjoy some group therapy.
Explore the team’s philosophies about work. Open-ended questions about how to best get work done invite more holistic responses about the job. For team members who need a little coaching, answers about why we do what we do can inspire them to try harder and seek more understanding.
Team building questions come in many shapes and sizes. They don’t have to be funny or cheeky in order to engage employees—all that matters is that they show respect for each team member and create opportunities to understand each other.
Getting back on track
Nothing matters more than keeping an open heart and mind during group discussions. Not all answers will be valuable or appropriate, and that’s okay. Should things get out of hand, the right attitude helps to rein in the conversation without alienating people.
Your team’s different personalities are represented when you ask effective group questions. Some will be more preoccupied with the spotlight or their role as expert, while others may avoid saying anything at all. Everyone needs a chance to share their personality if team bonding is to happen.
It takes time to get people working together, which makes the skill of mitigating frustration very valuable.
Need someone to stop talking for a bit? Suggest that the group hear from someone else. Is someone’s tone inappropriate or unfriendly? Voice disagreement and introduce your own opinion on the matter.
Offensive comments are a problem sometimes. You may have a team member who is simply ignorant of the lives and challenges of other people. Others may interpret their views as hostile or even as harassment. Sometimes their hunch is right, but most of the time these comments should be handled at face value with respect.
If someone makes an offensive comment about a protected class of people, kindly but firmly let them know that that’s not the way to talk about team members or any human on earth.
Whatever happens, avoid stonewalling the conversation at all costs. Again, getting into these creative headspaces takes time and effort, all of which can be wasted if derailed.
Teams want to come together and grow. Seeking community is a natural part of being human, but at odds with it is the desire to keep your good standing and avoid blame. Because most people are a little shy, creating an environment where people can speak openly is a skill that will help you for the rest of your life.
The more effort you put into giving team members the chance to express themselves, the more camaraderie you’ll see as your team members come together and build better working relationships.
Bonus: here are some easy topics to ask about if you need ideas:
What’s your favorite ice cream?
What do you think is the most annoying fashion trend?
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever heard?
Which cartoon character do you identify with?
Which favorite food can’t you live without?
What do you think is the best superpower to have?
What’s your favorite book?
What’s your favorite song?
What was your first job?
Good luck! Have fun.