“Being the richest man in the cemetery doesn’t matter to me. Going to bed at night saying we’ve done something wonderful, that’s what matters to me.” – Steve Jobs
“He who has a ‘why’ to live for can bear almost any ‘how’.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
In our team building workshops, whether we are focusing on leadership, motivation or on how to work better as team, conversations often touch upon “purpose”. Happily, much has been written about connecting to our values and purpose in life and in work. In his book, “The 8th Habit”, Stephen R. Covey wrote about the importance of “finding your voice” as a leader. This involves, among other things, developing their moral sense of a greater right and wrong into a drive toward meaning and contribution. Bill George, author of “True North” and “Authentic Leadership”, presents a strong case for developing leaders and companies that are purpose-driven rather than merely financially oriented. And Daniel Pink, in his book “Drive”, has identified “purpose” as one of the three most powerful motivators in today’s knowledge-based workforce. There is a lot to be said for clarifying one’s own purpose as a leader and in helping employees connect to the purpose of the organization. It is what engages us all in our work and gives our lives meaning beyond the paycheck.
Connecting with your own purpose: One of the rarest resources for most leaders is time to reflect. Yet that is exactly what leaders need if they are to be effective, authentic and purpose-driven. We are not talking just about reflecting on experiences and learning from them (although this is good too). We are suggesting a more pro-active approach that involves honestly and accurately assessing where (and who) you are currently, imagining your own (fulfilling) vision as a leader and making a plan to get there. We, at Summit, often refer to our deliberate success model to frame this process: create a vision of success, plan actions that will get you there and reflect on your progress periodically to make sure you are still on the right path.
Exercises for determining your vision and purpose: You may choose to structure your own reflective process to determine your purpose and leadership vision, or engage a coach to facilitate it. The important things are to begin it and to stick with it.
- Start by thinking about your true personal values. What beliefs are most important to you? Which guide your decisions and behaviours? List the five or ten that you feel most strongly about, are prepared to act upon and are prepared to defend.
- Who is a leader you admire greatly? This could be someone living or dead, someone you’ve read about or someone you know personally. What do you admire about them? List the attributes.
- Create your vision of yourself as the leader you want to be. How will people see you, talk about you and experience your leadership?
- What is purpose in life? What legacy would you like to leave for your family, for society for your organization?
- What special qualities, skills and strengths do you currently bring to leadership?
- Which qualities and skills will you work to develop?
- How will you demonstrate your values through your leadership? How will you demonstrate and fulfill your purpose through your actions everyday?
Helping employees connect to your organization’s purpose: The idea of helping employees connect to a “bigger” organizational purpose is difficult for some people to get their heads around. In our team building workshops, we often get push back on this. Yes, people can be cynical. And, yes, shareholder expectations of profit are one driving force in our daily work. But I think the greatest impediment to connecting employees to the organizational purpose is that we, as leaders, are sometimes not genuinely connected to it. You must start with yourself. You must see why your work matters every day, and become passionate about serving whoever it is you serve.
Exercises to connect your employees to the organizational purpose: Start with you. Who do you ultimately serve through your services and products? (Hint: not just the shareholders and board members.) How do you make their lives better? How does this affect society? What important role do you play? What would happen if you didn’t do this?
- Ask, “Why?” Help employees explore, on a regular basis, why their work is important. You can kick this off as a special facilitated meeting for the initial connection, but you need to do it often. Imagine the difference it would make to even the most mundane work if you could remain aware of a human being whose life was made better because of it. So, explore those same questions with your staff that you asked yourself in number 1, above.
- Bring in a “live” customer. You may be able to find someone whose life was dramatically improved by the work of your group. Close the gap between your team’s actions and the final benefit by making it face to face.
- Use testimonials. Do you have a testimonial from a client? Read it at a meeting where people can celebrate together and get fired up for the next day’s work.
- Post testimonials where they can be seen. Use a photo of the person’s face if you can. This is the ultimate inspirational poster.
Even the most stimulating and purpose-filled jobs can feel mundane at times. But, if we can stay connected to a greater purpose that resonates with our own values, we can keep ourselves inspired to do our very best.
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“Most people don’t listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” –Stephen R. Covey, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”
Whether we are interacting with family members, clients or members of our work teams, our own assumptions about their intentions and meaning can be one of the greatest impediments to understanding and agreement. In his classic book, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”, the late Stephen R. Covey describes an approach for helping us to overcome our assumptions and truly understand another person’s point of view. More about the approach in a moment.
The assumption trap
You may have experienced this situation: you’re in a team meeting trying to come to agreement on a basic course of action when the decision making process stalls. Two people, or possibly two “factions”, just cannot see eye-to eye. Frustrations mount, voices are raised and, in the ensuing chaos, no one appears to be listening. Then it occurs to you: “Are they understanding the other side’s position on this?” In some cases you may find yourself wondering, if they aren’t really saying much the same thing. It can be rather funny but it can be frightening too. As Stephen Covey noted, in our haste to respond with our own ideas, we often substitute our own assumptions for the true understanding that might be gained from a few minutes of listening. It just seems so much easier! But, in the long term, where there is no true understanding of a person’s ideas, feelings and intentions, there can be no true consensus and no true buy-in. In short, this is the antithesis of team building.
Evading the assumption trap with empathetic listening
Empathetic listening is an effective antidote for the poison of unwarranted assumptions that might be at the root of misunderstanding. Empathetic listening is about trying to understand the true meaning of what a person is communicating, both thoughts and feelings. Remember that empathetic listening in no way implies that you must agree with the other person. You are, however, acknowledging that their opinions and feelings are real and valid for them at this time. This creates a safe environment for them to express themselves honestly and gives you the opportunity to really understand where they’re coming from.
Team building activities to develop listening skills
Here are some team building activities that will help develop listening empathetic listening skills. These activities require people to work in pairs through a series of escalating good listening behaviours:
- First, ask people to work in pairs and take turns telling each other a 1-2 minute short story about something that happened to them; a “best ever” vacation is usually a safe place to start. Throughout the story, the listener must ask open-ended questions in order to keep the story flowing and to get more detail and meaning. Repeat with the second partner.
- Switch up the pairs and ask people to tell new stories (although the same story could also work) this time having the listener paraphrase or summarize the story periodically in his or her own words to check that they have gotten the message.
- As a variation of the above, have listeners try to identify the emotional messages embedded in the story (e.g., you sound very excited about that!)
- When people are more comfortable, introduce slightly controversial topics where there is potential for disagreement. Have people practice the above listening skills and acknowledge the person’s opinions without trying to win them over to the other side. The goal is just to show understanding.
- You can play with these exercises by combining them into a single team building activity. A variation that we use involves having one person in each pair tell their story for 2-3 minutes, while the other does his or her best NOT to listen. This is chaotic but fun. People actually experience, in a light-hearted way, the emotional pain of not being understood. They identify poor and good listening behaviours and get to try it over the “right way”. Debrief and summarize what listening behaviours worked best to make the story teller feel that the listener was engaged and got the full meaning of facts and feelings. You should get suggestions such as: maintaining eye contact; nodding; reflecting the appropriate emotion by smiling, laughing or frowning; asking relevant questions (open and closed); paraphrasing periodically; and summarizing.
The “Seek first to understand” Rule
Stephen Covey suggests a powerful tool for promoting mutual understanding: the “seek first to understand” method. It involves invoking a basic rule of communication: you cannot make your point until you have shown that you thoroughly understand the point of the other person. Use this procedure in a facilitated meeting if you feel the listening skills are not up to scratch, or if the discussion starts going in circles because people are not listening to one another. You can also use this technique at any time if there are two individuals arguing endlessly over a point.
- Stop the discussion and point out the need to listen to one another in order to move on.
- Introduce the tool and invoke the rule. Ask two conflicting members to volunteer to help the group move toward resolution of the issues. Emphasize that they will helping the entire group move forward. Write on a flip chart “Seek First to Understand Rule: You cannot make your point until you restate the point of the other person to his or her satisfaction.”
- Carry out the discussion. Have member “A” start to make her point. If member “B” begins to interrupt, remind him of the rule and have the first person finish. Then have the member B state the first member’s point. Ask member A if she is satisfied that member B got the point, including any feelings that were associated with it. If she’s not satisfied, member B tries again. Once member A is satisfied, member B states his point and the whole process is repeated. After both members are satisfied that their points have been made, ask if they are feeling any differently than when they began, and if they’d be willing to share their feelings.
- Proceed with your original agenda.
Use simple team building exercises to build your team’s “listening skill set” and then practice those skills with Covey’s “seek first to understand” tool. You should find that misunderstandings will be dealt with more quickly and your level of team buy-in and morale will increase.
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“Diversity: the art of thinking independently together.” – Malcolm Forbes
How often do you sit in meetings in which one or two people dominate the conversations while many others sit quietly and say nothing? While this can be normal on occasion, it can also indicate that you are not taking best advantage of your team’s diversity. And it may be that personality “types” are playing themselves out in a way that needs to be addressed.
When the team leader and team members understand and accept each others’ personality types, everyone can work together to ensure that all ideas are heard and understood. In our teambuilding workshops, we often help participants to take that a bit farther: we want them to first understand that they and their colleagues have different preferences for interacting, then accept that different approaches are OK and, finally, develop strategies to accommodate, even leverage, those differences.
Personality Type Inventories
There are many inventories available for assessing personality “types”, and most of the popular ones are based on the work of Carl Jung. They include the MBTI, True Colors, Insights, DISC and Identity Mapping. Some are quite complex and require time, persistence and practice to fully apply. Others (and there are many) are less thorough but offer the benefit of simply “opening the conversations” about how we can best communicate and relate as a team, given our differences. I believe there is still a lot of value in the simple approach since it gets the team exploring those differences and deliberating structuring their meetings and interactions to make sure that effective communication happens and that conflict is of the “healthy” type. The simple act of exploring these differences together can be a fun and valuable team building event.
The Introvert-Extravert Issue
One of the most easily understood differences in personal style is the degree to which one is Introverted or extraverted. You know when you have extreme extraverts: they talk in order to think. Now, the thinking part is good. But it makes it hard for the more introverted people to contribute. Introverts need quiet time to explore their own ideas and prepare what they would like to say. Often, when the meeting is over, the introverts have thought a lot and said little.
Tips for Creating Opportunities for Introverts to Speak Up
- First, open the conversation about the challenges and benefits of different personality styles. Psychometric assessments and a carefully structured teambuilding workshop can help you do this.
- If you want ideas from quiet people, give them time to think before the meeting. Send out your meeting agenda well ahead, and highlight topics for discussion.
- Related to the above, ask people to prepare a short presentation on their thoughts about key issues.
- In brainstorming sessions, first present the topic and then structure a few minutes of “quiet time” for people to write their ideas out. You can have them write single ideas on sticky notes to be posted on a flip chart or wall. Have them post all ideas at once, or take turns having people post one idea at a time until the group has run out of ideas to post. This has the added advantage that truly different ideas can come out, rather than having the brainstorm lurch off in one direction determined by the first few responders.
- Use a “talking stick”. Any physical item, in fact, can be passed around the room to indicate that “this individual has the floor so we will listen to her until she passes the stick to the next person”. I’ve heard a similar idea in which a rubber chicken was thrown on the table when a person had gone on too long. This was a high performing group of people who were able to laugh at themselves. Good for them!
- Use a “timekeeper” to limit the time that a person can speak. This can be an important and recurring job at your meetings. It requires that one person monitor the conversation flow, limiting some people and encouraging others. Rotate this role since the timekeeper may find it difficult to contribute effectively to the actual conversation.
- Use a mechanical timer, such as an egg timer, to indicate “time’s up” for the speaker. This helps to free up someone from the role of timekeeper. Plus, it’s completely objective and shows no favourites. I’ve also heard some fun variations of this idea. One group had a mechanical monkey with symbols. Nothing wrong with injecting fun!
Whichever mechanisms you use, the goal is the same: to create a team culture and environment in which everyone can contribute their best ideas and feel heard. This is absolutely critical for getting the best results and solid buy-in from your team.