Cupping therapy for healthy project teams


Cupping Therapy is an ancient Arabic form of alternative medicine in which toxic fluids get drained out of the body through local suction and carried out through incisions on the skin. Though it has rather painful connotations cupping practitioners strongly believe that this therapy mobilizes blood flow, which improves healing.

Project leaders across the globe agree that two main factors which are instrumental in project success or failure are “people” and “communications.” Both of them must be managed proactively using project management processes and emotional intelligence. Due to the complex and stressful nature of today's projects, any lapse in maintaining effective communication between people threatens to undermine critical project objectives

In this paper, we describe how we taught project management to children and how these activities led to improving teamwork and collaboration. We will also share our experience which will convince you that instead of hiring world renowned speakers to teach your team how to work together and enhance their communication skills, you can motivate them to perform better by engaging them in activities which do not cost anything, since they are performed voluntarily. This presentation will also show you some techniques which will enable your teams to think out of the box and try to find solutions for challenges faced on contemporary projects.


There is no difference between functioning as a member of a well-knit team and being an organ in any creature's body—especially the human body. Organs may suffer from problems from time to time, and when any problem happens, the effect on the whole body depends on the importance of this organ. As we know, the nervous system provides the communication channels in the human body, transferring messages from one organ to the other while the blood carries food and oxygen to all the organs.

In order to preserve life, it is crucial that each organ in the human body performs its intended function. But this is still not enough for a healthy body. The blood circulation system has to remain active and without toxic fluids, to ensure efficient supply of oxygen to all the organs. The nervous system must also transfer messages between the organs in the swiftest possible manner.

This paper is not a medical paper, but we will take the analogy of the human body and apply it to team management principles. When we face performance problems with our teams, we try to diagnose the reasons behind this and fix them, just like treating an injury or pain in an organ. At times, there is no apparent weakness; all components of the team are functioning, but still performance is lower than intended. This is where we need to diagnose problems related to communication (the nervous system) and motivation (blood circulation).

Teams and the Human Body

According to Jim Billington (2004), an effective team must have commitment, competence, and common goals. Even with teams that have the three essentials and are generally satisfied with their contributions, there may not be a high level of engagement with the organization. This often leads to team members leaving the project or company earlier than their planned release schedules.

Now let us think again about the team as a human body. We need the team to be effective and healthy, but at times we discover that every team member is committed to his or her function, competent enough, and have common goals, but still the productivity level is lower than expected. This is similar to when the human body may have every major organ working well, but it still suffers from headaches and laziness, etc. It can be argued that the team is working, but at the same time it is also suffering from similar impediments. One can feel that there is something wrong but cannot be diagnosed.

For team communication, we can use the formal and non-formal methods. Management mostly sees formal methods, which are assumed to be perfect, and the team is seen to be communicating with each other in a very professional way. The issue is to identify hidden negative messages in non-formal communication. These messages can take the form of “You have to know that I'm more experienced than you, so you have to listen to me” or “I know that you don't know much, but since the management has put you in this position, I have to deal with you” or “You are an accountant, so you don't know anything but calculating numbers.”

People send these messages unintentionally, or sometimes intentionally, to each other in non-formal communication most of the time, and they place stereotype them in their minds because of their culture, previous experience or for other reasons. A perfect solution to this situation would be to replace the negative messages with other positive ones. But even if we can't achieve this, we must get the negative messages out of the team's body first. These negative hidden messages (NHMs) become embedded in the positive and normal ones but they are toxic fluids in the blood which hamper the ability to efficiently supply oxygen to the organs.

Cupping Therapy

Going back to the old medical recipes, we find a technique called Cupping Therapy. Cupping Therapy is an ancient Arabic, Chinese and Egyptian form of alternative medicine in which toxic fluids get drained out of the body through local suction carried out from incisions on the skin. Though it has rather painful connotations, cupping practitioners strongly believe that this therapy mobilizes blood flow which improves healing.

The process of Cupping Therapy—or Hijama, the Arabic name—is described in Wikipedia as the following:

Hijama can be performed most anywhere on the body, often at the site of an ache or pain in order to ease or alleviate it. A more conservative approach warns against over use of cupping and suggests only that six optimal points on the body are all that is required to “clean” the entire cardiovascular system: The back of the head, two shoulders corresponding to the acupuncture heart position, the tail or small of the back, and the two inner ankles.

The location is first shaved, if necessary, to ensure a tight seal with the cup. The mouth of a cup (metal, glass and plastic cups are generally used, although traditionally horns were used) is placed on the skin at the site chosen for hijama. Then a tight seal is created. The traditional method is to burn a small piece of paper or cotton inside the vessel, so that the mouth of the cup clings to the skin. Some practitioners now use a machine instead of the manual cups. The cup is left to cling to the skin for a few minutes, then it is lifted off and several very small incisions are made in the skin. The cup is then put back as it was before until the flow of blood subsides. Hijama is considered a form of energy medicine because it has been claimed to unclog the meridians in the body, and is viewed by some practitioners as a cure that can alleviate black magic and possession (Hijama, 2006).

If we can use a similar technique with a team, then we can get the NHMs out of the team body and it will be healthier.

Using another example, assume that we have a problem in the human body. Can we solve this by giving the body medication and vitamins to make it better? Sure we can, but this will affect it for only a short period. Sometimes when management gives support and motivates one team member because he or she did a great job it is like giving medication or vitamins to treat one part of the human body. This may have a side effect, as other members will find it discriminatory that the management gave credit to one of the team members and forgot the others.

Applying Cupping Therapy to Teams

The solution that we found was to move the entire team to a different place and try to discover the negative hidden messages. Moving to another environment gave us the chance to have more non-formal communication, since this is usually the best environment for discovering the NHMs. Also, due to the work load, we could not ask for meetings to discuss these issues openly, so we decided to move to a different environment.

We decided to offer our team a chance to work together for a charitable cause being sponsored by the organization. We encouraged them to rely on non-formal communication and tried hard to isolate the formal communication from non-formal ones. This was done due to the assumption that most of the negative messages pass through the non-formal channels, and hence the need for isolation.

Young Project Managers Camp—The Project

We offered our teams a chance to teach project management to children 8 to 12 years old in order to improve the children's skills and give them the tools that they can use in their lives. This was a valuable goal given to the team.

In the beginning we established the ground rules. The first rule was regarding rotation; that means all the members will do more than one type of work, and they will have the freedom to choose what they want to do. The other rule was that all team members are equal in rank, so there are no managers and subordinates.

From the first meeting, the HNMs started to appear. For example, we discovered that the managers started practicing their roles as managers, not team members. They started giving orders because they assumed that they were more experienced than anyone else. While this assumption was valid in the normal work, it was not the case on this project.

Heat and Vacuum Approach

So during the first phase of the project we focused on discovering the negative messages. We used non-formal communication to bring these negative messages to the surface, the effect achieved by heating an area during the Cupping Therapy. Then we took appropriate actions to get the negative messages out, emulating the vacuum stage of therapy.

In order to ensure that all negative messages are identified, we triggered discussions which were likely to result in conflicts, and once such messages became apparent we continued to “vacuum” them out. Our role during this exercise was to act as servant leader to analyse body language, gestures, overtones, and words that could indicate areas which needed attention and corrective actions.

Other Discoveries

Because the project was not being done in the normal work environment, it was easier to discover these hidden messages. Also, we needed a lesser amount of effort to change the assumptions in the team member's subconscious. Heated discussions in an isolated environment were less likely to affect the normal work.

This was a three-month project, and we worked on it eight hours per week. During this period the project team was trained well to be real team members, and we also discovered a lot of skills in the team that we could not have discovered in the normal work environment. All the communication was informal and we constantly motivated them to perform better.

Motivating Factors

We used Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs model as our reference. The model has the following stages:

  1. Biological and Physiological—air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sex, sleep, etc.
  2. Safety—protection from elements, security, order, law, limits, stability, etc.
  3. Belongingness and Love—work group, family, affection, relationships, etc.
  4. Esteem—self-esteem, achievement, mastery, independence, status, dominance, prestige, managerial responsibility, etc.
  5. Cognitive—knowledge, meaning, etc.
  6. Aesthetic—appreciation and search for beauty, balance, form, etc.
  7. Self-Actualization— realizing personal potential, self-fulfilment, seeking personal growth and peak experiences
  8. Transcendence—helping others achieve self-actualization

Starting from stage three, we felt that a volunteering program can play a very big role in each team member's motivation, not only to get the negative messages out but also to motivate the team to be more effective, engaging, and productive.

To motivate the project team to do such a project, we tried to discover the self-motivators for each team member. We asked ourselves why this particular team member wanted to work in this project—What is the self-motivator? We asked if a member is interested in teaching kids, receiving free training in project management, or doing some work that he or she loves. We discovered a lot of self-motivators on this team. For example, we discovered that one of the team members had a talent in drawing, and she used this project to get her talent recognized. Another team member wanted to get free training on project management. Another team member needed to learn how to be a teacher. A team member needed to show her managers that she had enough talent to get better jobs done in order to get more delegation and responsibility in her department.

Discovering the self-motivators was very important because this helped us to push the HNMs out and keep the team moving in the right direction. Every team member needed to prove him or herself and change his or her stereotype in the organization. Everyone tried to do his or her best to push the other person to get the negative impressions out and replace them with positive ones.

The team continued in this way and in every meeting and with every step all the team members tried to be more creative to let everyone know that he or she as a person can do more than what he or she is doing right now.

Results of Cupping Therapy

The team did a great job and the project succeeded. We gave recognition to all the team members, and this increased the morale and communication inside the company, and the communication and collaboration between the team members became more effective and healthier than before. This was reflected in many things like:

  • The team members got rid of the HNMs.
  • The mode of team work changed, and every team member became more committed.
  • We discovered a lot of hidden talents during the project.
  • We discovered that all the teams need is suitable encouragement.
  • The work performance became better, and we got even higher performance than we could have gotten after training sessions.
  • The confrontation without control may increase the negative messages, and it may cause problems, so we often tried to know what the main reasons of a problem or assumption are. We used Ishikawa techniques, and they proved to be very effective.


Now the question is, do we have to do voluntary work to solve team management problems, or can we do it during the normal work?

The answer is that, in voluntary work, people are free and open to express their feelings, and in the end the volunteer work does not affect their income, so there is no worry on this issue. In voluntary work we can know easily what the self-motivator is for each team member, and this is important because it can help us get the negative messages out.

We recommend applying an open door policy and try to work closely with the team. We found that the best way is to engage the team with something that they like to do.

After this project, the team worked together very effectively for six months, and during these six months they exchanged a lot of positive messages and they got rid of most of the negative ones. We recorded the project and kept it as a reference so the project team can see how they succeeded when they worked as one team with more engagement. After six months the team relationships started showing signs of strain, which is an indicator that we need to find another voluntary project to weed out negativity.

Corporate Volunteering

Many organizations pay money for social responsibility programs, but very few encourage a corporate volunteering program, which is more important for all companies to keep their team members healthier because it is like Cupping Therapy. Corporate volunteering programs are very important for global sustainability, for society and for the effective team. Deloitte's Pro Bono Program (Deloitte Development LLC, n.d.) is an example of how the concept is being applied globally.

The description at Deloitte's website states that:

Of course, our involvement in building stronger communities is not only good for society, it's good for us too because it contributes to the healthy environments that businesses need to thrive. And, it helps attract, develop and retain talent while showcasing our values and capabilities.

In this paper, we shared our idea and experiment with you to get your insights so we can enhance it for future use.


We can get better performance by maintaining a healthy body and in order to maintain healthy teams, we need to get the hidden negative messages out and then motivate people.

One of the most important tools to do this is to engage the team members in a volunteering program. Companies should support volunteering programs because they will not only be good for society, but will also contribute to the healthy environment that businesses need to thrive and they will help attract, develop, and retain talent.

Employee engagement at the work environment increases by joining a volunteering program, especially if there are limited chances for career advancement. Organizations should encourage their employees to join the volunteering programs and leaders need to find creative ways to do this.


Billington, J. (2004). Teams that click. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press.

Deloitte Development LLC. (n.d.). Pro Bono Service. [Definition at Deloitte website]. Retrieved from

Hijama. (2006). In Wikipedia. Retrieved from

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©2013 Mohamed Khalifa Hassan, Muhammad A. B. Ilyas
Originally published as a part of 2013 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Istanbul, Turkey



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