Planning Participation? Not the Hokey-Pokey Please

Isn’t it funny how things happen? Twice in one day I have heard a word I haven’t heard for a long time. Two different potential clients – in separate cities and with separate consulting needs – both said to me, “But we don’t want hokey.”  I’m old enough to remember when HR was constantly upbraided for being too “touchy-feely”. But honestly, I thought those days were well behind us. I thought everyone knew that Organization Development involves creating real solutions to effectiveness issues. I hoped that by now the history of planned interventions by professionals would have erased the image of the Kumbaya hugs. I guess not. So, what’s up? Why this renewed concern with presenting material that is hokey?

Hokey means “phony; obviously contrived”. Doing hokey activities makes people feel unsophisticated, even stupid. I think somewhere back in the 70s, when experiential learning was discovered as a good way to teach adults, we made the mistake of offering games for learning. Instead of ensuring that the activity was actually relevant and related to the topic, we used “ice breakers” and sometimes silly ways to reach our audience. Questions like “what kind of car are you?” were meant to warm up a group, move it through the polite stage, and get people ready to work together. But it was hardly relevant, and can even feel intrusive. Now, most of us have had enough. From high school on up, students have been working in groups and “playing to learn.” And they can smell hokey a mile away.

What’s next then? Here are some ways to calm the renewed anxiety about teambuilding, training and participatory meeting process.

  1. Ensure your facilitator is trained and able to work with diverse groups with sensitivity. They need highly developed interpersonal and emotional intelligence. They need to be aware of what is happening, not just in the group, but for each individual in the room. A gentle and respectful way used by the facilitator opens the space for people to constructively contribute.
  2. If you routinely set ground rules for group process make sure the Extraverts in the group (which usually includes the leader) don’t dominate. Often these rules demand full frontal participation. Rethink the subtle messages in rules like “Everyone has to participate” and “If you say nothing it means you agree” and “Even if you don’t agree, you have to support the decision of the team.”  Introverted thinkers, who prefer to process and have a chance to filter their responses, can feel bullied and harassed. They stop coming to meetings.
  3. Use activities with purpose. Ensure the activity suits the objective and the target group. Check for fit with the culture of the organization. Always let people opt out – especially of physical activities. Design an alternative way to contribute.
  4. Ensure someone on hand can facilitate a learning debrief. The best format for debriefing activities that I have seen comes from Thiagi (aka Sivasailam Thiagarajan, PhD), a guru in research based learning games. His advice is to summarize what just happened (i.e. I asked you to do this, and then you did this) to take your group through a mental memory of their experience. His six questions are used as follows:
  • How do you feel?
  • What happened?
  • What did you learn?
  • How does this relate to the real world?
  • What if?
  • What next?

It helps to develop specific debriefing questions ahead of time. At the least, close each activity so no one is left hanging.

5.   Deal with emotional outbursts in meetings. You contain the outburst by using eye contact and proximity to stay connected to the person who needs to be supported. Balance your desire to have this person participate with your responsibility to protect the group. Listen carefully without taking offense. Help people neutralize their language by restating their points or concerns in a more constructive way. Paraphrase without sarcasm. Offer a break or a chance for people to leave the room.

 6.   Finally, treat people at work as adults. Games are fun when they have purpose – and the purpose can be to have fun!  Be clear about your motives and your means. Invite others to participate and contribute – and value what they bring. Structure your activities and your agenda to meet diverse preferences and to work toward objectives with ease and grace. Take your work seriously, AND have fun doing it. Doing this will ensure you are not accused of being “hokey”.

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