By TAMMIE PLOUFFE - The managing Partner of Innovative Pathways and a Professional Organizational Development Consultant and Executive Coach. (October 16th, 2017)
Imagine looking at a photo of a single shoe on the sidewalk, or two people embracing, or a person walking alone into a cemetery. All these images instantly ignite emotions and associations - without a written or spoken word. And because the reaction is physiological, it happens in seconds. As a facilitator, I’ve found that photos can create connections between people faster - and more profoundly - than any other icebreaker or team-building activity I’ve ever used. And because the response photos evoke is natural, leaders with no facilitation experience can use photos to turn many team interactions into an opportunity to create connection and accelerate collaboration.
Why does a photo create a feeling of connection? Thank biology and hormones.
Human communication has existed for more than 30,000 years, but written communication has been around for only 3,700. As a result, our brains had a lot of time to become hardwired to recognize and interpret visual information. This is useful considering that 90% of all the information that comes to the brain is visual. And since our survival often depended on it, we got good at doing it quickly. Perhaps because we developed this ability alongside the realization that we need to live and work together in tribes and communities to survive, the hormones released when we look at and interpret visual images are the connection-building hormones: serotonin, which creates feelings of connection and belonging, and oxytocin, which reinforces feelings of trust and safety.
This potent hormonal mix works quickly to make people feel connected. As management theorist Simon Sinek and other insightful leaders have noted, when people feel connected, they feel safe to express themselves and share ideas and personal insights - all of which improve the quality of communication and create the rich dialogue essential for collaboration and problem solving. Perhaps because we developed this ability alongside the realization that we need to live and work together in tribes and communities to survive, the hormones released when we look at and interpret visual images are the connection-building hormones: serotonin, which creates feelings of connection and belonging, and oxytocin, which reinforces feelings of trust and safety.
This potent hormonal mix works quickly to make people feel connected.
As management theorist Simon Sinek and other insightful leaders have noted, when people feel connected, they feel safe to express themselves and share ideas and personal insights - all of which improve the quality of communication and create the rich dialogue essential for collaboration and problem solving.
How can you use photos to build a sense of connection on your team?
Step 1: Prepare. You’ll need some photos; it’s best to have plenty. A ratio of 10 photos for each person is recommended. You want to be sure you have photos whose imagery has broad appeal. You can create your own deck by printing images from one of the royalty-free and copyright-free stock photo collections, or you can purchase one of the facilitation card decks developed and used by facilitators and executive coaches, which usually have upward of 200 photos.
Display the photos around a room where the team can walk around and see them easily. You’ll also need a handout with three to five insight-building questions. More on what makes a good insight-building question in Step 5 below.
Step 2: Focus the discussion. Let’s say you have a newly formed team. You need to create a mandate to be sure that the team members have a shared understanding of the group’s purpose - why the team exists and what effective collaboration looks like. Focus the group on this topic as your starting point for the discussion.
Step 3: Choose photos. As members consider the topic for discussion, have them select a photo or two that resonates with them and visualizes their thoughts. In this case, it would be on what they think the team’s purpose is and what effective collaboration looks like to them.
Step 4: Share insights. Once everyone has had time to think and choose a photo, have each person share their photo and say why it resonates with them. Remember that physiological, emotional reaction? Once people start to share what they think using the photos, they quickly start to connect.
Step 5: Capture themes. As each person shares their photos and explains why they chose them, ask the group to look for common themes. Then dig deeper and facilitate a discussion. Ask insight-building questions, and jot down your team’s answers. Here are a few examples of the questions you could ask:
What do our images have in common?
What themes did we share related to our purpose?
Why is this team’s work important for the organization?
What does it look like when we are collaborating effectively?
How do we want to work together going forward?
What are our next steps to make our purpose a reality?
Insight-building questions start with why, how, and what, because this language invites open-ended responses. This is critical when unpacking complex subjects into actionable specifics. As James Joyce astutely observed, “In the particular lies the universal.” In other words, when people get specific, other people relate. And when people start to relate, they get into richer dialogue. Rich dialogue is the difference between speaking in generalities, as in “We need to improve morale,” and speaking in specifics, as in “Employees want opportunities to grow, learn new skills, and develop on the job.” Specifics are vital if you want actionable ideas to result from the conversation.
Step 6: Take action. After the team has identified common themes and answered your questions, ask them to outline actionable commitments they can agree on, ways they can effectively collaborate and work together to make the group mandate a reality.
3 BIG REASON why do photos contribute so much to this process...
Reason #1: In addition to affecting us quickly and powerfully, images stay with us longer. Research shows that after a period of three days we retain 60% of what we see and only 10% of what we hear. Retention of decisions and “aha moments” is critical when it comes to achieving real change in behavior and alignment of action across perspectives. I am still inspired by an experience I had with a disconnected team whose members used imagery to communicate their issues and expectations for a project they were working on that had gone sideways. A year later, I pulled the images the group had chosen and asked if they could recall their image. Not only could they remember their image and dialogue with incredible accuracy, but they also recalled the images and dialogues of the other participants.
Reason #2: Because the response to photos is physiological, it happens regardless of generation, language, or culture. In workplaces as diverse as most are today, this is pretty important. Last year I called on the connecting power of photos when helping a leadership team that was having difficulty aligning on strategic priorities for how they wanted to lead the organization forward. I asked each person to choose a photo that expressed what leadership meant to them. A man whose first language was not English shared an image of horses walking along a beach with a single person walking behind them. He spoke of the image evoking that leadership is to serve and lead from behind, and the spirit of the horses symbolizing the combination of strength and gentleness that is needed to gain employees’ respect and trust for direction. It was a pivotal moment for the team, helping them relate to each other in a way they hadn’t been able to just moments before.
Reason #3: When people connect and relate to one another, they become less protective of their own opinions and less judgmental of others’ opinions. In other words, photos shift people out of advocacy, where they protect and promote their own ideas, and into inquiry, where they are open to new ideas.
Incorporating photos into your team interactions has the power to transform your team’s communication, connection, collaboration, and performance. No special training or budget necessary.
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