I recently returned from a group tour of northern Italy. Traveling with a collection of strangers was a first for my husband and me. Group comfort stops, scheduled meals and history lectures felt like being back in grade school, albeit a pleasant grade school. We were, after all, in postcard-quality Alpine landscapes clogged with hillside castles, vineyards and cute towns with buildings resembling decorated birthday cakes.
What struck me during this journey was how the tour group behavior mirrored the dynamics I’ve witnessed over many years of leading groups as an executive and trainer. Put a group of grownups together, and the whole spectrum of human behavior emerges. The Italy trip was no exception. It ended well, but the process of arriving there offered an opportunity to reflect on principles of group cohesion and how it can promote learning.
Our group of 16 seasoned travelers represented a cross-section of geographies, careers and life histories. Aside from our suitcases, we each carried our own baggage of strong worldviews, fears and priorities. We also carried diverse political philosophies, something that in these days could have easily morphed into divisiveness. Instead, we solidified into a mutually supportive group of people who learned a lot about northern Italy, ourselves and each other.
Below are five principles that facilitated our group bonding and learning and their relevance to facilitating corporate training.
1. Unity of Purpose
We all knew why we were there: to enjoy two weeks in northern Italy. Investing time and money in the trip created the organizing framework. Getting the most of and making sure we had not wasted our time or money informed our behavior.
People come to training for many reasons. Too often, they are sent, rather than deciding to enroll, or they are checking an educational requirement box. As a result, they arrive with mixed and often conflicting agendas. Taking the time to align the needs of attendees with program goals will raise the probability of success and avoid disengagement.
2. Positive, In-touch Leadership
Our vibrant group leader made a point of projecting positive energy. She also proactively asked group members for ongoing feedback to change plans as needed. This approach improved the trip and increased people’s willingness to support changes, because their viewpoints had been considered.
Too often, training facilitators become wedded to the script rather than asking the participants how the material is landing. “Is this working?” is a hard question to ask, but course corrections based on audience feedback can make all the difference. Such adjustments can strengthen the material and the group’s commitment to it.
3. An Environment that Supports Taking Chances
While many equate travel with adventure, it doesn’t mean travelers will take risks. In unfamiliar settings where the language, food and culture differ from home, they can default to their comfort zones, avoiding new experiences. Our trip leader structured the trip to accommodate many interests. At the same time, she acknowledged the possibility of discomfort: “If you prefer to remain in the city rather than taking a day tour of a remote village, that’s not a problem.” This approach allowed people to make choices and encouraged them to vocalize concerns and, with the support of others, reconsider. The tighter the group became, the more open members were to new experiences. By the end of trip, everyone joined the side trips.
Successful training relies on participants’ willingness to try new behaviors. It can lead to feelings of awkwardness, but it is how we learn. Creating an accepting space where people allow each other to experiment with new communication styles, conflict management and strategic thinking will advance their progress. It also recognizes that people enter new experiences at different speeds. Extroverts might plunge into role-play, while introverts would prefer to observe. Both can learn from their respective approaches.
4. Inescapable Accountability
No matter what was said the night before, we all had to pack into a small bus the next day. There could be no wandering off to avoid facing someone with whom you had disagreed over dinner. In the close quarters of the bus, not only did you have to see each other, but it was hard not to interact. A strident comment from the night before did not prevent appreciation of that person’s eagerness to share her camera, sun cream or humorous stories. It created a context in which we continued to learn about each other, understand personal nuances and realize that differing opinions did not have to create distance.
Research has shown repeatedly that peer opinions matter and, if supportive, can raise performance. Training programs have the opportunity to build peer communities to enhance learning outcomes. Achieving that environment requires trainers to bring group members together to accept each other’s differences and find ways to weave them into the achievement of program goals.
5. An Express Desire to Improve
Mixed into the history lessons and new cultural experiences were endless conversations about how group members tackled their lives at home, from career choices to wellness. Suggestions were given, webpages cited, and follow-up promised (and delivered). The experience built upon itself and created an atmosphere of positive change. We were there to see Italy. We also traveled to learn and move forward in our lives.
Training is all about improvement. It provides an opportunity to lift the game and build new capabilities. It is worth remembering the magic training offers – and to celebrate it!