Washington State University: Challenge Program teaches WSU community critical skills in team building

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Getting people out of their comfort zone to experience an ‘aha’ moment is one of the key goals of University Recreation’s Challenge Program.

Those moments of epiphany are part of what has made the Challenge Program, which helps departments and groups build strong and collaborative teams, so successful over the years, said Challenge Program leader Arturo Gavilanes.

“We are very intentional about getting people outside of their comfort zone, where they are critically assessing whether or not they are safe, both physically and emotionally,” Gavilanes said. “That’s when we see a lot of people gain insight that will help them in their studies and their jobs.”

Members of the College of Business Administrative Council experienced that feeling of uneasiness recently during a Challenge Program workshop addressing workplace burnout. As part of the workshop, attendees participated in an exercise where some were blindfolded and asked to walk to a certain color of tile on the floor guided by two team members: one who wasn’t allowed to see the floor, and another who could see the floor but wasn’t allowed to talk.

“There’s a lot of noise in the world around us and sometimes on the job there is lots of chaos,” said Lydia Guenther, an office assistant in the dean’s office. “My takeaway from this exercise was that it’s important to give and receive feedback, to vocalize how you are doing, trust your team, and ask for help when you need it.”

Gavilanes finished the workshop with an exercise demonstrating the importance of shared values in the work setting and how they help build community within the organization.

“I personally have felt waves of burnout over the past few years, and I am grateful to have a support system within my department and college,” said Melissa Painter, administrative manager in the School of Hospitality Business Management. “This workshop helped us feel more empowered to have that conversation with leadership and find an advocate.”

Learning the ropes
Empowerment comes easier when people are part of a strong, cohesive team, Gavilanes said. He has been helping students, faculty, staff, and community members build strong teams since 2017.

The beauty of the workshops, according to Gavilanes, is that they mostly occur indoors, making them available year-round, and there are many topics to choose from, including problem solving, effective communication, decision making, and conflict management.

During warmer months, Gavilanes and his staff can be seen working with groups on the Student Recreation Center ropes course, which has stood tall in the backyard since 2006. The course features three high elements — the tallest being a ladder that reaches 72 feet high — as well as 11 other elements that are much closer to the ground.

Whether it is on the ropes course or in one of the many workshops offered by the Challenge Program, Gavilanes said experiential education is always the focus.

“Rather than just talk about teamwork, we facilitate an experience that shows participants the importance of teamwork,” he said. “We have a long list of activities that we can choose from depending on the desired learning objectives.”

‘Craving personal interaction’
Word continues to spread about the fun and effective ways the Challenge Program promotes teambuilding, and Gavilanes is seeing interest in the program grow.

“As we are transitioning out of the pandemic, I’ve noticed a lot of people are craving personal interaction where they can get to know their colleagues and understand them better,” Gavilanes said. “The people we work with are really happy to be engaging with others.”

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