My management team was bickering. Two managers in particular: Leo and Vincent. Both of their projects were fine. Both of their teams were producing, but in any meeting where they were both representing their teams, they just started pushing each other’s buttons. Every meeting on some trivial topic:
Leo: “Vincent, are you on track to ship the tool on Wednesday?”
Vincent: “We’re on schedule.”
Leo: “For Wednesday?”
Vincent: “We’ll hit our schedule.”
Endless passive aggressive verbal warfare. Two type A personalities who absolutely hated to be told what to do. My 1:1s with each of them were productive meetings and when I brought up the last Leo’n'Vincent battle of the wills, they immediately started pointing at their counterpart: “I really don’t know what his problem is.”
I do. They didn’t trust each other.
On the Topic of Trust
There’s a question out there regarding how close you want to get with your co-workers in your job. There’s a camp out there that employs a policy of “professional distance”. This camp believes it is appropriate to keep those they work with at arm’s length.
The managerial reason here is more concrete than the individual reasoning. Managers are representatives or officers of the company and, as such, may be asked to randomly enforce the will of the business. Who gets laid off? Why doesn’t this person get a raise? How much more does this person get? Profession distance or not, these responsibilities will always give managers an air of otherness.
Here’s my question: do you or do you not want to be the person someone trusts when they need help? Manager or not, do you see the act of someone trusting you as fitting with who you are?
Yes, there’s a line that needs to be drawn between you and your co-workers, but artificially distancing yourself from the people you spend all day every day with seems like a good way to put artificial barriers between yourself the people you need to get your job done.
Is that who you are or who you want to work for?
The topic of trust is where I draw a line in both my personal and management philosophy. My belief is that a team built on trust and respect is vastly more productive and efficient than the one where managers are distant supervisors and co-workers are 9-to-5 people you occasionally see in meetings. You’re not striving to be everyone’s pal; that’s not the goal. The goal is a set of relationships where there is a mutual belief in each other’s reliability, truth, ability, and strengths.
And it’s something you can build with a card game.
It’s pronounced how you think. Rhymes with crab. It’s an acronym for a game which, with practice, will knit your team together in unexpected ways. It’s Back Alley Bridge. Here are the rules, but before I explain why this game is a great team building exercise, you need to understand a few of the rules.
BAB isn’t bridge. The game does have a few important similarities. First, it’s a game for four players, involving two teams — the folks facing each other are on the same team and share their score. Second, it’s a trick-based game where the goal is for each team to get as many tricks as possible. A trick is won when each player turns up a card and the highest wins, unless someone plays a trump suit, which, in the case of BAB, is always spades.
Bidding. Also like bridge, BAB has bidding, meaning each team bids how many tricks they think they’re going to get after the cards have been dealt. Scoring is optimized to reward teams who get the number of tricks they bid and heavily punishes those who don’t get their bid. Bidding is a blind team effort — you have no idea what your teammate has in their hand other than what you can infer from their bid.
Decreasing hand count. Unlike bridge, the number of cards each player gets decreases with each hand. Each player gets 13 cards in the first hand, 12 in the second, and so on. Play continues down to a single card and then heads back up to 13. A work-friendly modification I’ve made is to only play every other hand (13-11-9, etc.) This number of hands fits nicely into a lunch hour.
Hail Mary. There are two special bids: Board and Boston. A bid of Board indicates the team is going to take every single trick. A board of Boston indicates the team intends to take the first six. Achieving a Board or Boston can be an impressive feat and is rewarded handsomely from a scoring perspective. Failure results in a scoring beat-down. Both of these special bids allow for wild variances in the score, which can be handy for teams who are falling behind.
Scoring, game play, and other information are in the complete rules. Now, let me explain why I picked this game as a recurring weekly lunch meeting.
In BAB, you talk shit. I’ve landed BAB in three different teams now and in each case, the amount of trash talking that showed up once players became comfortable with the game was impressive. This is a function of my personality, but it’s also a byproduct of any healthy competition amongst bright people. It’s also a sign of a healthy team. I’ll explain.
Trash talking is improvisational critical thinking — it’s the art of building comedy in the moment with only the immediate materials provided. As I’m looking for candidates for my next BAB game, I’m looking for two things: who will be able to talk trash and who needs to receive it?
The art in talking trash is the careful exploration of the edges of truth. When someone effectively lays it down, they say something honest and slightly uncomfortable. The ever-present risk with trash talking is when that line is crossed. It’s that one thing that is said that goes too far and offends, but it’s the presence of that line which makes talking trash so much fun.
It’s these honest and dangerous observations that form the basis of trust. When a co-worker makes a big observation about you and shares it with the other players, you take note – someone is watching. It sounds problematic, but remember, we’re just sitting here playing cards. It’s safe.
In a new BAB game, it takes players time to get used to the trash talking, especially in a situation like Leo and Vincent’s. Adversarial co-workers playing on the same team need to learn to ditch the business for the game. They need to understand there is a relationship outside of the daily work and there’s nothing like a comedic verbal beat-down to remind them to lighten up.
In BAB, you learn things unintentionally. Once you’ve got an established game with regular players who all know the rules, you’ll learn two things: people get better at trash talking with practice, and information travels in unpredictable ways in groups of people.
It goes like this:
- Player #1: “I bid 3.”
- Player #2: “I bid 1.”
- Player #3: “Pass.”
- Player #4: “Kevin’s quitting. I’m sure of it.”
- Player #1: “Yeah, I know.”
- Player #2: “Sucks to be you.”
Out of nowhere, in the middle of the game, you’re suddenly assessing the departure of a co-worker. I see this as a sign of a thriving, healthy BAB game because the team has begun to trust each other more. In the safety of the game, they’re letting the worries of the moment spill onto the table for all to see, which is impressive, since everyone knows that anything on the table at BAB is fair game for talking shit.
In BAB, you’re having work experiences without the work. Relationships need time to bake. Trust doesn’t magically appear; it’s cautiously built over time via shared experience. The majority of these experiences are created during the regular work day and I’m certain there are a great many healthy professional relationships that are defined and maintained in this manner, but I want my teams closer. I’m not suggesting group hugs and voices united singing Kumbaya. I’m looking for each team member to have the opportunity to understand each other slightly more than what they see when they’re at work.
The more you understand how your co-workers tick, the better you’re able to work with them. You’ll stop seeing them as the role, the title, or the keeper of a particular political agenda. They are just… Phillip. And you know what I know about Phillip? He’s the manager who used to wait too long to speak in a meeting. He had plenty to say that mattered, but he used to be too shy to say it.
Two months of trash talking over BAB showed me his reservations, so I learned to pull Phillip into the meeting conversations as quickly as possible. After a few pulls, he started to do it himself. After a few weeks, you couldn’t get him to shut up.
The Second Staff Meeting
The inspiration for the game came from a regularly scheduled bridge game at Netscape, and there’s nothing special about BAB that makes it the perfect lunchtime game. I chose BAB because a team-based game that fits nicely in a lunch hour.
You bet I maneuvered Leo and Vincent onto the same team for weeks on end. There was no magical moment during one game where they suddenly understood each other. Leo and Vincent continued to bicker in meetings, but over time the tone changed from the passive aggressive to the playful talking of trash. They turned competition into something healthy and fun.
In the safe competition that is BAB, you learn not only how to work better together by understanding that winning doesn’t always mean hitting your dates, getting paid, or receiving a promotion. Winning can be a simple, playful thing, “We were awesome as we kicked your ass.”
More importantly, BAB is a regular forum for experiencing that relationships are not defined just by the work we do together, but who we become with each other when we aren’t looking.