Team Effectiveness: Getting Alignment on Purpose

This is the time of year that I interrupt my regular reading to revisit my favorite book. For the second year running, I’m “reading” Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, unedited. By “reading” I mean listening to it in the car as I travel to and from work every day.

When I shared my enthusiasm for the unedited edition with one of my co-workers, he was incredulous. “But, you have to go through page after page of the author’s description of the priest. The story is about Jean Val Jean, not the priest!” I tried to explain that the story was much bigger than Jean Val Jean. I could see instantly that my co-worker’s perspective was much narrower than mine. I defended my love of the full book, carefully explaining that the book examines larger themes, such as the nature of law and grace, moral philosophy, justice, religion, and the nature of love—romantic and familial. Hugo examines these themes from the varying life experiences of all the characters of the book, not just from Jean Val Jean’s.  But my co-worker wasn’t buying it – he seemed to think I was taking something that was quite simple and pure and making it unnecessarily complex and grand.

We felt very differently about the book because of our different perspectives of what it was about. We had both read the book. All of it. And our experiences were different. For my coworker, certain characters and narratives seemed wholly unnecessary. These were frustrating to him – they diluted the story line. On the other hand, these same characters and narratives seemed essential to me because I saw them as part of a larger, universal story.

This difference in perspective, in my view, is analogous to what I often see in the leadership teams with which I work. One recent example is the global HR team of a rapidly growing organization. The team was struggling in part because they had different perspectives about the primary purpose of the global team and the relevance of each role on that team. Some shared a perspective that was centered around the HR function and how to overtly promote the importance of employees in the company’s vision, mission, and strategy. On the other side, some team members (including the team leader) saw the purpose of the team as HR business partners, who were empowered to build people initiatives into the fiber of every business decision without needing to call out a distinct people strategy.  Though a few team members adopted the leader’s perspective, many on the team were frustrated by it, frustrated because they thought their leadership story was about People as THE main character, while the team leader was trying to get them to see People as just one of a whole cast of characters integral to the overarching vision and mission of the organization, and every business strategy and objective.

To be successful, leadership teams must operate with shared meaning and purpose, wholeheartedly supported by each team member. This alignment doesn’t mean team members have to squelch their point of view – in fact, it requires each to openly share his or her perspective.  Alignment on purpose is the outcome of shared meaning, which can only occur when disparate points of view are shared and appreciated.

In the situation with my coworker and our perspectives on Les Mis, I think we are both better off for having shared our views. While our different ways of interpreting the story are not part of our team’s work purpose, the process of sharing our perspectives helps us discover what we have in common, and our ability to respect disparate points of view bodes well for us working together toward our shared purpose of serving internal and external stakeholders with great care. Both the priest and Jean Val Jean would be proud.

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