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What Volunteering Taught Me About Teams

Over a period of several years, I volunteered with a girls’ group as an adult leader. When I joined the program, I had no idea what to expect. What I got was six 13 year-old girls who continually surprised and challenged me.

For the girls, this group was an opportunity to learn about teamwork, communication, and accomplishing great things. Watching them learn to work together to solve problems challenged me to think more intentionally about team building in other contexts, such as the workplace. As it turns out, I still benefit today from considering the lessons they learned.

Give everyone a chance to feel heard

As an adult facilitator in this particular group, my job was to step in to help when needed. The rest of the time, I took a back seat. The girls formed a self-organizing team with the nebulous goal of doing cool things and having adventures. The concept of having the girls run the show was ultimately a great success, but it meant that I stayed mostly silent through some tough growing pains for the first few weeks.

At first, every meeting or discussion felt awkward and drawn out. The team needed to build trust and cultivate balance, though they didn’t realize it at first. The more outspoken girls debated each other and thought everything was going great–right up until the time the previously silent girls were ready to stage a mutiny.

The girls learned quickly that silence does not always imply consent. I helped them make sure that each girl had multiple safe venues for contributing ideas, such as written brainstorming and paired-off discussion. Eventually, the quieter girls gained enough confidence in the group to speak up occasionally, and the talkers learned that not everyone feels comfortable talking.

Figure out what’s important before you begin

Before the group’s first campout, I sent out a list of important supplies. To my mind, this list was unambiguous and thorough. The girls asked a few questions, which suggested to me that they had actually read the list. That is, until we started unloading the car.

I had written some sort of instructions about bringing a “sleeping bag or weather-appropriate bedroll.” As we prepared to hike in to the site, I saw wadded up sheets, a few crocheted throw blankets, a quilt–nothing remotely appropriate for a winter campout. How did my instructions get so badly misinterpreted?

After a few probing questions, the problem dawned on me. It wasn’t that the girls hadn’t read the list. The problem was that they lacked the necessary context to make the right decision. I had assumed that six teenagers who had never before spent a night outdoors would understand what I meant by “weather-appropriate.” It was a pretty warm weekend in the city; since they’d never been camping before, they didn’t realize that it gets cold in tents.

Stay true to your goals

On one memorable occasion, another adult leader–one of the mothers–joined us in the planning stage for the quarterly campout. A few minutes into the initial brainstorming sessions, while we were debating the relative merits of tubing versus backpacking, this interloper offered her idea of a good time: “I know a really cool hotel in that area!” The kicker: “It has an indoor pool and it’s next door to a mall!”

Since her services as a chaperone were required on this particular outing, there wasn’t a lot I could say against her. The girls gave the idea due consideration and were soon clamoring to “camp” at the cool hotel. In the excitement, they lost sight of the real goals of the group: hotels have air conditioning, but they lack character building or adventure. In the end, the weekend wasn’t as much fun as they’d hoped, and the “campers” ultimately felt frustrated with how they’d spent their quarterly activity time.

Sometimes, you just have to get in the canoe

In spite of all of their preparation, there were times when nothing could quite prepare the group for how a new situation would turn out. When the team worked well together, everyone trusted that they were ready to fix any bad situation they encountered along the way. Excited to try something new but scared of the river? Sometimes, you just have to get in the canoe anyway and trust that your team has your back.


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