Meaning and purpose: how the best teams are created

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Our Leading with Meaning and Purpose blog series continues with TPC Leadership Partners Andrew McDowell and Hilary Harvey discussing the importance of leaders connecting their teams to a collective sense of meaning and purpose.

Team leadership

So far in our conversations about meaning and purpose we have covered personal leadership and relational leadership. Both these layers influence the wider dynamic of team leadership.

The idea of “high-functioning teams” is often discussed as a hallmark of great organisations. Many organisations work hard to create the conditions where teams can thrive; where the total is greater than the sum of the parts, where team members feel compelled to contribute and work together at the positive edge of their collective performance.

One of the most important success factors in collective team performance, is the conscious consideration of meaning and purpose at the team level. Having a sense of working towards a purpose can act as a powerful inspiration that keeps team members’ sense of adventure alive, makes the horizon worth exploring and helps people to feel like they truly belong.

“What is the story we’re telling ourselves and others about why we are doing what we do? What’s the purpose we’re contributing to? How are we making meaning together? It’s rare to hear a leader say, ‘these are the things we’re going to be talking about on a regular basis.’” says Andrew McDowell, a Partner at TPC Leadership. “But that’s exactly what we need to be doing.”

Creating synergy of purpose

Having a unified sense of purpose has the potential to turn a group of people with functions and job descriptions into a team of fully engaged human beings, who are less interested in what’s in their contract and more interested in what’s possible.

“When people are inspired by something greater than themselves, their individual purpose can become aligned with a group purpose,” says Andrew. “There is synergy. A shift from thinking just about ‘me’ to thinking more about ‘we’. A shift from focusing on personal goals to group goals, from personal benefits to the benefits for others, from individual potential to group potential, and most importantly, from individual meaning to collective meaning.”

High performing individuals can only create what their own talents might forecast. But teams unified in meaning and purpose gain new qualities. You’re multiplying, not simply adding strengths.

Purpose goes full circle

“High functioning teams also value and celebrate diversity,” says Hilary Harvey, Partner at TPC Leadership “and innovation comes as a result.”

Teams that are united by purpose, and create shared meaning from what they do, start collaborating more. Diverse minds thinking together, finding more innovative and relevant solutions as a result. Because these teams innovate more, they perform better – creating a virtuous circle as they celebrate and find meaning in these successes, and consciously connect these to the bigger picture purpose that they are in service of.

So paradoxically, although team members may have let go of some of their individual needs in favour of the group need, ultimately this sacrifice is more than worth the cost, as people feel the deep reward of recognizing their personal contribution towards the collective purpose.

How to create a shared purpose

So how do you do it? How do you create a shared sense of purpose in a team? How do you find shared meaning on the journey? The beginning of the thread that ties everyone’s sense of purpose together is trust.

“Trust is a vastly underestimated quality” says Andrew. “People need to know each other to believe in each other.  Without trust, things stay at the transactional level, the focus remains on the exchange and what’s in it for me.  Without trust, people find it very difficult to let go of their individual needs in pursuit of a team purpose.”

Without trust, teams full of skilled and driven individuals run the risk of working in competition with each other, seeking personal accomplishments rather than collaborating for team successes. Teams that proactively seek to build trust through prioritising real connection with each other open themselves up to new and unexpected possibilities, leveraging the unique contribution and perspective of each member.

Leaders set the tone

Leaders can offer a great service to their teams and the wider organisation by giving permission to open up conversations about meaning and purpose.  “It really helps if the leader sets the tone by engaging in those conversations themselves”, says Andrew.  “Showing a little bit of vulnerability by opening up about what’s really important to them and talking about what they feel they are contributing to at a bigger level, can create the permission for others to do the same.  It takes the conversation out of the transactional and into the realms of hope and possibility”.

It’s easy to become stuck in conversations about day to day activities and forget about the purpose you are contributing to. Leaders can help bridge that gap. When we start talking about what we are contributing to in the bigger picture, we can get more personally invested in what we are doing and in each other’s success.  Andrew continues, “People want to feel connected to a bigger purpose, and they want to be led by people who can help them connect to it. Feeling part of a collective sense of purpose creates confidence and value, and it makes it much easier to extract meaning”.  These issues are vital at the team level, where buy-in and personal investment from all the individuals can create such a massive difference.

Want more insight on how to move forward? Get in touch with us to find out how we can help.

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