Professional facilitator Priya Parker was leading a two-day retreat for a group of twenty consultants just outside Bangkok.
1: “In Thailand, and particularly at this firm, there was a very strong etiquette among the consultants that the client always comes first,“ she writes in her book The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters. “Accordingly, it is understood that they pick up the phone at all hours of the night, leave family dinners to take calls, step out of weddings to reply to texts, and hop on planes if needed. This etiquette had helped to make the firm extremely successful in general.”
On this day, however, the consultants had gathered for a two-day retreat to build trust internally among the consultants. Their value of putting clients first was interfering with their desire to strengthen their commitment to each other.
“I had two eight-hour days planned, and everything designed down to the minute,” Priya notes. “Each two-hour section of the day was intense, with the consultants focusing on one another, having powerful and honest conversations, saying things they had been keeping from one another.”
There was a break after the initial two-hour session. Some of the consultants had scheduled client calls during the breaks. “Not surprisingly, after fifteen minutes, they were finding it hard to get off the phone. We started the session again, but four of the consultants were missing.”
Their tardiness, while understandable, was harming the group dynamic. “It was breaking trust, undoing all the work we had done in the previous two hours, because the latecomers’ peers felt disrespected.”
People in the room became angry.
As the stragglers returned to the room, one at a time, one of the consultants shouted out, “Push-ups!” Everyone laughed.
2: Priya read the situation and announced this would be the rule. “The four tardy consultants, in suits and ties, heels and wingtips, looked at me like I was crazy,” she recalls. “The consultants who had returned to the room on time started grinning and clapping.”
The four tardy consultants dropped to the floor and did ten push-ups each.
“It released the tension in the room,” she writes, “and it also introduced a new rule: If you’re late, you can come in, but you first have to do ten push-ups.”
There were three more breaks that day, and by the third one, consultants were practically racing through the hallways to make it back on time. “After each break, people would shut the main room door on the dot with great ceremony. If anyone was even a few seconds late, everyone started cheering, and the condemned got down on the floor and gave them ten push-ups.”
3: Doing ten push-ups is an example of what Priya calls a “temporary rule,” which we can use at our gatherings to overrule the usual etiquette temporarily. “By making it fun and harmless, if slightly embarrassing, they created a fleeting social contract that everyone bought into.”
Doing so helps create an “alternate reality” for our time together. “The consultants’ client focus was a good etiquette for most things, but it was an etiquette that left no space for the equally important ethic of caring for their colleagues,” she notes.
Reflection: Consider an upcoming event or meeting I am planning. How might I utilize a “temporary rule” to advance the event’s purpose?
Action: Try it. Run an experiment and learn from it.