Working for yourself has a lot of perks – my boss is nice (even if I do say so myself!) and I get to make all the key decisions, work on my own plans and define my own way of doing things. It’s quite liberating.

But I do miss being a part of a team.

I have plenty of people who step in and out of my business as I outsource work or collaborate. But that’s not quite the same as being a part of a solid, cohesive, trusting and well honed team. I have been a part of many teams and managed a few people along the way. There is a sense of belonging and cohesion that can come from a team and the knowledge that you are not working in isolation. Being part of a great team is just the bees knees!

The reality is though that not all teams are these well functioning machines, and things don’t always go according to plan. There are a few things that can go wrong, like when a team loses it’s collective compass.

A sense of meaning

One of the things that differentiates a team from a group, or various other collections of people who come together to do some kind of work, is the collective purpose. It is the knowledge that you are all working together for the same thing. And that you are clear on what that thing is.

Each person in that team will be focusing on their role and is giving their all to do what they do best. But sometimes people are so incredibly busy they don’t get a chance to look up. Sometimes fire fighting becomes the norm and getting things done takes priority over why on earth you are doing it in the first place. When this happens, the bigger picture, the sense of why each person is important and what the overall purpose is, can get lost. And when people get a bit lost they can become demotivated and deflated, and lose sight of what it is they are contributing to. Rather than feeling like an important cog in the mechanism, you might start to feel a bit like a loose part.

This may not be one catastrophic implosion. But there may well be signs, hints that people are perhaps a bit too frantic to see out, a bit too focused on the task in hand to understand how it all fits together. Particularly when people have been working together for a long time, there is a kind of implied understanding, and implicit knowledge of how things are done. But things can slowly change and creep off in a direction that perhaps they shouldn’t, and if you are not careful before you know it there are a bunch of individuals all working hard on what they think they should be doing, but the results are not quite what you had hoped they would be.

Keeping everyone on track

Part of your role as a team leader or manager will be to check in on people and make sure that things are as they should be. Doing this at regular intervals through whatever system you have in place, through meetings and various communication channels is part of the process of looking after your team. How you do this depends on the size of your team, what they are doing, your timescales, your external environment and all sorts of other factors.

But sometimes the day to day procedural check ins aren’t quite enough. It may seem that when you are having individual conversations with your team members you are hearing about shifts and changes and things that don’t quite match. It’s difficult to know where one end of a story begins and another starts, and the connections and the stress lines are there, but you can’t quite see how they fit together. Knowing and understanding individual roles and responsibilities, goals and the ways the team should be working are all parts of the jigsaw. But understanding the overall team purpose is what pulls everyone together.

A whole view of the team purpose

One way of taking a holistic view of the team purpose and clarify where everyone fits within it is to actually bring your team all together in the same place at once.

What kind of things could you do?

Review and perhaps reassess the team purpose together and see where you are. Form a deep understanding of why the team exists. This is more than reiterating what the team purpose is, but getting input from your team on where they think you all are. It may be that actually there is some room for revision and you team can be valuable contributors to this. Participating in the (re)creation of team purpose helps to build and sustain ownership and buy in.

Check that there is clarity around the language. You might have something lovely sounding written down, but does it still have meaning? Articulate and check for understanding and whether there are any subtle nuances that need spelling out. I worked with a team about 6 months ago where we spent a long time exploring whether they thought the team purpose was about innovation or creativity. These words are closely intertwined, and for some people the difference doesn’t matter. But for this team it did, so don’t gloss over something that might end up being really important.

Recreate a connection between the different roles and the team purpose. This not only demonstrates how the sum of the parts create the whole but reminds people how they fit in. This will highlight the value of each team member and show where their contribution sits which helps make people feel they have their own purpose too.

You can not only check that each person is aligned with the direction of the team, and the company, but that they are aligned with each other. Sometimes even if a team is small, certain people can appear to work well together but not quite in that connected way with all team members that you need. Explore the connections between the individuals in the team as well as between the team and the purpose.

Facilitating connections
Team Connections

If there are things that aren’t quite working, this is your chance to repair broken connections. By creating an environment where you can identify any barriers and difficulties in working together you can start to have more honest conversations about what might not be working. Bringing your team all together in the same space gives people the opportunity to have conversations that they might not ordinarily have.

Team solidarity is important, so spend some time strengthening this. If things have shifted, the focus has changed and your purpose is no longer what it started out as, finding commonalities can be a great place to start. Understanding what works well and how this can be built upon and celebrating the important wins is also something that can bring a team together and help garner its strength to work together.

Bring focus to the big picture

Working with your team all together, creating the time and space for constructive conversions is a valuable way of taking stock and looking at the overall picture. This will help individuals know where they fit into the team and to know why the team is important to the company. Checking in on the purpose, refining and adding clarity to it, and addressing any issues will help the team work better together.

It is an investment in time and resources to take time out and create time and space in this way, especially when you are busy. But not taking the time could mean that your big picture may become a big blur and that your team may all be pulling in different directions. Above all your team needs to feel a part of that team and to understand it’s raison d’etre and if done well, it’s well worth it.

If you liked this article you may want to read more about “How can group facilitation help save your team relationships?”

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