The Power of Shared Experience


‘It’s not rocket science. It’s neuroscience,’ says Asia Ability Director David Fotheringham as he details how to boost team bonds.

I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand. — Confucius

David Fotheringham

In this ancient wisdom, Confucius captures the essence of what Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) practitioners now call learning modalities. We now know that only a limited number of us can effectively process information through auditory channels alone (I hear — e.g. listening to a lecture), more require visual stimulus (I see — e.g. watching a demonstration), while MOST of us require some form of action or kinaesthetic stimulation (I do — e.g. practicing a skill or engaging in an activity) before we truly understand it. Learning from experience is proven to be the most effective learning tool. But what kind of experience is needed?

Early research in the field of positive psychology in the 1940s and ’50s studied the effect of powerful shared experiences on building effective and efficient teams, based on surprising evidence from World War II. Not only the did the intense camaraderie found on the battlefield create a tight bond between soldiers, the wartime pressure also united a supporting workforce in factories and offices. On the home front, women often assumed roles previously assigned only to men, and produced results that far exceeded those of their peacetime equivalents. Since then, psychologists, behaviourists, and a whole training industry have sought to produce the same impressive results without resorting to the horrors of war.

Today’s creative team-building and event providers look to do just that with dramatic, exciting, and positive shared event experiences. In particular, when combined with skillful facilitation to elicit very clear and transferable lessons, these experiences serve to anchor learning and bonding in a way few other approaches can ever hope to achieve.

Team work and cooperation among departments often improves in a time-pressured, competitive environment. We create an experience called Beat the Box, where, in a darkened room, teams race against the clock to solve puzzles and crack codes in what is a conference-based version of the popular Escape Room experience. The learning is real. But the drama (and the fun) of the experience is what makes that learning memorable and powerful, and brings everyone closer.

The same is true even with more complex and cerebral challenges, like an activity we run called Peak Performance. Here, teams engage in an app-based simulation, bringing climbers to the peak of Everest and then safely back to basecamp. This is full of fantastic leadership lessons, like how to harness the talents of the team and effectively delegate the many important team roles. The added drama we create around the experience, with physical challenges such as pitching tents, packing sleeping bags, fitting climbing harnesses, or taking that all-important summit photo, makes the event memorable and serves to anchor these lessons.

The elaborate experiences created by training companies or event agencies may appear to serve as pure fun or entertainment. But I believe that the more dramatic and exciting the experience, the better the anchor for learning, and the stronger the bonds between team members. It’s not rocket science. It’s neuroscience.

Based in Thailand, David Fotheringham is director of team-building company Asia Ability, which operates across Southeast Asia.

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