While leaders might feel the urge to run company-wide team building exercises to foster employee bonding, research suggests it’s better to encourage a close connection between two people.

Setting appropriate boundaries at work can be difficult. Staff are encouraged to “bring their whole selves to work” while also being cautious not to overstep professional boundaries.

But getting more personal in the name of workplace cohesion is exactly what new research from associate professor Jullien Pollack and associate dean Petr Matous of the University of Sydney suggest we should be doing. Instead of creating bonds between all employees, they say we should be focusing on the connection between pairs of individuals.

Asking questions to create a bond

In a breakdown of their research for The Conversation, Pollack and Matous say it’s important to remember that “teams are social networks built on connections between individuals”.

They refer to a viral social experiment from the late 90s that was revived by the New York Times in 2015. It was based on the idea that any two people could fall in love if they asked each other 36 specific questions.

The first round of questions are quite standard: “Would you like to be famous? If so, in what way?” And, “What would constitute a ‘perfect’ day for you?” But as the experiment goes on, the questions become more personal, such as: “Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing? Why?”

Following the NYT article (spoiler: the author did fall in love with her partner after going through the questions, although she can’t entirely credit this to the experiment), it became common to see social media videos of strangers carrying out the same experiment, and other variants of this experiment started to become popular. But they weren’t always about forming a romantic connection.

SBS produced a series called ‘Look Me In the Eye’ based on the idea that two people could mend a severely broken relationship by remaining silent and looking at one another in the eye for a certain period of time. And it wasn’t bickering siblings they were dealing with, these people had real problems. A Sudanese child soldier coming face-to-face with his former torturer, for example.

I underwent a similar experiment myself, except the person I was paired with was a stranger. I was asked to go into a room full of people and to take a seat in front of anyone. The rules were simple: look into the other person’s eyes for as long as you can without speaking and take note of how it makes you feel. (We ended up holding eye contact for half an hour. We were one of the final couples remaining in the room. I know it wasn’t a competition or anything, but we were solid runners up for the “best starers in the room” prize).

As you’d expect, I felt a little silly at first. My stranger and I cracked a few nervous smiles, which turned into suppressed laughter, but after we’d pushed through the first five minutes, my feelings towards him shifted dramatically. It wasn’t just us. At the ten minute mark, I could see strangers hugging and holding hands in my peripheral vision and I heard some crying. There was a lot of emotional energy in the room.

No, we didn’t fall in love (although, I wish that’s how this story ended), but I did start to feel connected to him in a way that even now I can’t articulate – which is the whole idea behind this technique. You create a connection that’s unique to the two of you.

“I could see strangers hugging and holding hands in my peripheral vision and I heard some crying. There was a lot of emotional energy in the room.”

In Pollack and Matous’ version of the 36 question experiment, they were able to produce data to show how these connections look in a workplace environment.

They asked office pairs who were critical to the overall cohesion of the workplace – for example, that could be an HR lead and the CEO – to undergo the 36 question experiment and then tracked the pairs’ communication patterns over the following three months. They found that communication frequency increased amongst those pairs who answered the questions, as did their comfort level around discussing personal matters with their partner (see graph below).

By Kate Neilson


By Kate Neilson