Tap into Your Team’s Hidden Strengths

Something amazing happens when your team makes the decision to step outside their comfort zone, a world of possibilities expands and your team is doing something they never thought possible. Adventure learning can take your team to the next level, but experts advise caution by doing your homework to ensure quality and then be prepared for the surprises that lay ahead.

We spend most of our lives at work, so why not invest in it and make it a place where people look forward to coming to and a positive working environment as a team? Investing in co-workers is really investing in your company. When your employees are happy and working within their strengths, it shows in their work, then in your business profit. Everyone wins.
Imagine being blindfolded, yet still expected to express yourself in solving a group problem. Now imagine that you have to do this with a coworker that you barely know that has been instructed to only communicate non-verbally. That’s exactly the situation that Amanda Black, Organizational Development Advisor, found herself in during leadership development training on the challenge course at James Island County Park.
“It was a serious trust initiative where you had to figure out different ways to communicate with my co-workers,” Amanda says. “Throughout the rest of the exercise my partner and I continued to build on our strengths,” Amanda says.
The lessons learned through the teambuilding process made a huge impression on myself and how I lead others in the workplace. “The experience helped show me how to look at my team member’s strengths and weaknesses and then build partnerships to face the challenges ahead,” she explains.
Amanda says that because 93% of her team that she manages are millennials, many of whom prefer hands-on learning to being told how to do anything, she had a find a way to guide them differently. “I think back to my leadership experience and realize I can give enough rope to get a rope burn, but not hang themselves,” she remarks. “When I give them projects, I trust that they will learn through the process of independence and problem-solving with support as needed,” she says. By using that assisted learning approach Amanda says she’s learned not to answer the questions at first, but rather to work with them to discover the answers themselves and build on their strengths.
In a report in the Journal of Unconventional Parks, Tourism, and Recreation Research, researchers Theresa Odello, Eddie Hill, and Edwin Go’mez wrote: “Data supports the notion that participation in a four-hour challenge course significantly increases the participants’ levels of leadership and work efficiency” and that “results were significant” and “long lasting.”

Outward Bound introduced the first ropes course in the U.S. in 1970s, however the concepts of the modern ropes course goes to early 1900s when George He’bert, a French naval officer, developed a method of physical education that developed the body and moral character in an outdoor environment.
While it can provide opportunities to test physical skill, when well facilitated the challenge course experience also provides opportunities for interpersonal growth and leadership development. Those documented by over two decades of research include introspection, confidence building, self-awareness, and team building. Other research indicates that ropes courses may make unconscious thought processes visible through meeting physical, group, and individual challenges.
Richard Denning, who has been facilitating and designing challenge course experiences since 1991, explains that courses involve a set of initiatives featuring challenges that build throughout the session. Each one presents a new scenario for groups to work together in a way they haven’t had to before, then evaluate their results and the learning opportunity within, and then apply their finding to real world working environments.
Challenge courses often consist of a combination of low and high elements experience. While some initiatives are very portable, often done on an open field and sometimes indoors, other low elements take place just a few from off the ground. High elements are often built 40 feet above the ground into poles or trees. While some low course programs can be completed in three to four hours, Denning explains that the most ideal scenario for optimal team-building is full day or multi-day experiences. “The more time you dedicate,” he says, “the more time you have to peel away the layers” that can help participants make sense of their experience and apply the learning to both work and life.
Roger Greer, course manager for the Adventure Learning Center at James Island County Park in Charleston, South Carolina, facilitates approximately 131 groups (3000 individuals) through his challenge course program each year. He explains that there are three general focuses: team-building, leadership development, and team-bonding.
Team-bonding is what a shared experience provides; a chance to get to know each other outside of the office. Leadership development and team-building occurs thru the process of facing challenges, communication, trust, and decision-making is facilitated by a guide. “You’re experiencing group problem-solving,” Greer points out. “Participants then get the opportunity to analyze the process, how the team met or did not meet the challenge, and then discover how to apply their learning to the next challenge and/or the office while in a completely different setting”, he says.
Denning warns that even though the challenge course industry has been growing since the 1990s, it’s necessary to do due diligence to ensure that facilitators have the experience and training needed to ensure a transforming experience for your team. “It’s often easier to learn the hard skills (the technical components of managing the risk management issues of a challenge course), but you also need facilitators who can manage the emotional risk of the group, sequence, and adapt to needs of the group — so that you can apply the learning to your life,” he says.
Denning recommends asking plenty of questions when choosing a challenge course venue for your organization. Among them: What level of inspections, training, and credentials does the facility have? What is their track record? How long have they been doing this? What kind of group process do they implement within the programs? What kind of training do they put their staff through? What type of groups do they normally service?
You need to be prepared for surprises, according to Amanda. “Interestingly, the people you thought were the most aggressive in your group, or the most physically or mentally strong, were not always the same on the course,” she says. Amanda believes that is because challenge courses are a thinking person’s game. “You need to be calm, focused,” she observes, “Sometimes the most boisterous individuals aren’t the best leaders.”
Amanda has had so much success with the experiential learning process that she’s has made the challenge course an annual part of their team’s leadership development model. “By making this investment in creating shared experiences and the development of a trust-based leadership culture, it creates a positive environment that ultimately delivers a more cohesive team able to produce stronger results for our clients,“ she says.
Denning adds that’s powerful to watch team members pass through and get to the other side, especially when the challenge impacts both a person and a group dynamic. “The most meaningful experiences are when you see a group members grow as individuals and as a team,” says Greer, “whether a massive obstacle that seemed insurmountable, or something small to enhance their performance.” #DISCOVER-INSPIRE-GROW