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Leading Teams to Connect to Meaning

July 22, 2020

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Ariela Rosenstein

Executive Coach
Leadership Development

What are the characteristics of the world’s most effective teams? As leaders, which levers should we use to strengthen team cohesion and impact?

Google conducted and published a global study on the world’s most effective teams – dubbed Project Aristotle – and revealed the five most important attributes of the highest performing teams.

Interestingly, the results showed that the who on the team is not necessarily a key driver of team effectiveness. In other words, more capacity, more experience, and more diversity don’t automatically yield better team outcomes. Rather, it is the how of the team that indicates success, such as the degree of trust, inclusion, and clarity amongst team members.

The five attributes of the world’s most effective teams, according to the study, are:

  1. Psychological safety – team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other.
  2. Dependability – team members get things done on time and meet a high bar for excellence.
  3. Structure and clarity – team members have clear roles, plans, and goals.
  4. Meaning – work is personally important to team members.
  5. Impact – team members think their work matters and creates change.

Although there is some critique of this study (addressed in this New York Times article), there is ample research around the importance of caring for your staff, understanding their unique needs, and creating inclusive cultures that allow for honest dialogue, risk-taking, and failure. Gallup recently released new data in their 8 Habits of the World’s Best Managers, and there are clear areas of alignment with Google’s five attributes.

While each of the five attributes is worth exploring, this blog focuses on the attribute of meaning, which asserts that teams are more effective and cohesive when each employee personally connects to the meaning of their work.

It’s worth making a distinction between purpose and meaning. In the workplace, organizations have a purpose which helps orient employees to the mission, goals, and values. Departments and teams can create a purpose statement as well, which is also a wonderful tool for establishing a clear and shared value proposition. Purpose, in relation to Google’s study, is more reflective of the attribute impact and how much we think our work matters and creates change.

Meaning, however, is more personal and is about how we each connect to our day-to-day job and work environment. Deloitte’s offers a wonderful one-minute video on meaning vs. purpose.

In mission-driven organizations, there is no denying that we care deeply about our work. Yet due to the complexity and intensity of our organizations and roles, it can be challenging to remain clear about our personal inspirations and motivations. In this way, we inadvertently prioritize purpose over meaning even though both are important.

How can we bring more intention towards team cohesion and effectiveness – particularly important as we continue to lead remote teams – by strengthening connections to meaning?

Here are three simple actions – along with sample activities – to encourage each team member to connect with meaning. These can be facilitated in team and/or one-on-one meetings.

Discuss Values

  • Share personal values that are important to their recent work.
  • Describe a person who has recently influenced their perspective or approach.
  • Create a values timeline and share how their values have changed over time.

Tell Stories

  • Relate stories about the ‘why’ behind their chosen field of work.
  • Share experiences that have influenced their goals and motivations.
  • Identify anecdotes of inspiration found in other teammates’ efforts or accomplishments.

Share Preferences

  • Discuss personal interests around learning and developing in the workplace.
  • Describe approaches for addressing team and work challenges.
  • Share individual preferences for receiving recognition for their contributions.

As the leader of the team, you may want to consider integrating these types of activities into standing meetings and agendas.  Remember, what our employees care about may be quite distinct from what the leader cares about.  For that reason, asking open-ended questions and demonstrating active listening are key.

l look forward to hearing about your approaches for strengthening connections to meaning within your teams!

Ariela Rosenstein has over 20 years of experience in designing and facilitating leadership development and capacity building programs around the world.  She has a passion for designing and guiding experiences that equip leaders to develop clarity, navigate complexity, and remove barriers to success.  In her role as Vice President of Training of an international conservation organization, she oversaw the global product line of leadership development and behavior change interventions.  Currently, she advises on leadership development for a global humanitarian agency, where she designs, delivers, and scales online and in-person learning programs.  Ariela is an Executive Coach (ACC), certified through Georgetown University’s Institute for Transformational Leadership, and is also a certified instructor of mindfulness and meditation.  Her MA is in Sustainable International Development.  She serves on the board of Impact by Design and is a Child Advocate with the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights.  She regularly shares her work at the Humentum annual conference. Connect with her at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/ariela-rosenstein/

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