A Force to Be Reckoned With: The Helium Hoop

What’s Worse Than Unhealthy Conflict?  Let the Helium Hoop Decide.

By Tom Miller, Phil Brown & Rich Keegan

Priya Parker, author of The Art of Gathering, suggests unhealthy politeness is toxic to the development of effective teams. The observation of stilted social norms can be destructive to a team’s coherence and cohesiveness, all the while lulling members into perceiving themselves not as repressed from genuine communication, rather as polite, positive, contributing members in a mindful ‘civil’ society. But life isn’t all Downton Abbey propriety and ‘one lump, or two’ manners, is it? Sometimes getting cranky with one another is the only healthy way to resolve conflict.

Expressing Conflict Safely

How do the members of a team understand the impact and importance of behavioral norms? How do they express frustration with one another? Or conflict in a way that is objective and rational, rather than subjective and personal? How do they get cranky safely? One means to that end is to involve the team in a learning activity where failure is inevitable—often drawing out the worst in us—and yet still safe for the individual and the group.

One such learning situation is the classic team development activity of the Helium Hoop. What appears to be a simple group exercise in collaboration is in reality a test of a group’s ability to understand the mysterious cause of their dysfunction and repeated failure and to discover the means to work together in mastering the challenge and succeeding.  At its root level, Helium Hoop is an exercise in establishing group behavioral norms: How will we interact with one another, not just when things are going well, but also when things are going wrong—especially when things go wrong?  A High 5 Podcast hosted by Phil Brown, Rich Keegan, and Lisa Hunt (members of our Training Team), addresses this challenging topic with wit and insight.

How Does it Work?

Here’s how Helium Hoop works: team members arrange themselves around a standard, gravity-obeying hula hoop. Everyone is instructed to extend both index fingers to support the hoop, keeping them rigid, and to keep the hoop absolutely level at all times. To emphasize the importance of those instructions, you might want to write them on a piece of paper and hang them from the center of the hoop with a piece of string. The group’s objective is simple: lower the hoop from waist height down to the ground. But be careful—if anyone removes a finger, or the hoop tilts off level, the group fails and has to start again. And again. And again. You see, our instinct, when told to make sure our fingers stay in contact with the hoop, is to put a slight upward pressure on the hoop. When the entire group responds in the same way, the hoop doesn’t go down, it rises—just like it’s filled with helium. 

Test Your Patience!

Learning how to solve a problem, especially one that involves lots of people and moving parts, the kind of problem often encountered at work, can be a challenging proposition. Too often when faced with the new, we fall back on the old, whether it be in the ways we think, act, or interact with one another. What seems familiar and understood, predictable and safe can lead straight to failure. 

Learn to Think Differently

Every effective team has to learn to communicate honestly. But what are the ground rules, the behavioral norms we all accept and observe? Who talks? Who listens? How does everyone stay communicative and cooperative while trying to resolve perceived differences? Connections are the key. For individuals to act as one, they have to decide to work as one, identifying their shared problem and formulating a shared answer. Remember that Helium Hoop? Everyone connected. Everyone equal. Everyone either part of the solution, or part of the problem. 

Up or Down?

The rising and falling of the Helium Hoop is a metaphor for the ups and downs groups experience at work.  Will we work together, or give in to frustration? If you manage an organization, you know what the answer has to be, if you’re going to succeed. We can help you and your team confront and conquer your differences—whether your communications culture is raucously vocal or painfully polite—and together discover how to make conflict serve your shared best interests.   Click here to learn more about Team Development at High 5.