Ingredients for High Performing Teams: #4, Meaning & Impact

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The final ingredients for high performing teams that Project Aristotle revealed are meaning and impact. Leaders of teams need to articulate a clear vision, and reinforce how each member’s work contributes to bringing the team closer to that vision.

On the surface, this sounds simple and straightforward. Let’s be honest, it’s nothing groundbreaking – the importance of meaning and impact to team effectiveness seems fairly intuitive. I mean, most organizations nowadays have mission statements. Meaning just seems to be another buzzword and lofty ideal in the corporate world.

As I’m sure you’re well aware of at this point, implementing these ideals in ‘real life’ is a whole other story. The importance of meaning in team effectiveness is obvious – but how do you actually foster a sense of meaning and purpose in teams from the real world?

A quick Google search reveals thousands of articles discussing how to develop meaning and purpose in teams (for example, this Harvard Business Review article). Most, however, just end up reiterating how important a purpose is in a team, and that you should “find it”. Finding the purpose as the leader, though, isn’t the hard part, in my opinion. To get the entire team to buy in and connect with it…that’s the real challenge.

So in preparing for this post, I set out to explore this exact problem – how can we not only find a team’s purpose, but also get the entire team to ‘buy in’ to it?

Before I dive deep into the question of how, though, I want to explore the why – why is making sure each team member feels a genuine sense of meaning and purpose so important? Teams have been operating fine without this connection to purpose for decades – why is it now the time to fix this?

Research over recent years have begun to empirically explore the importance of a sense of meaning in life. They have connected a sense of purpose to everything from life expectancy, to company financial performance, to job performance. It is becoming increasingly evident that this isn’t just an issue of enhancing team performance – a sense of purpose has implications in almost every aspect of an employee’s life.

Dan Pink discusses this at length in his book “Drive”. In his research he found that drive was predicated on three factors: autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Considering these stats, to not talk about purpose at work would be downright foolish.

Now let’s take a look at a company that took full advantage of sense of meaning to boost employee and team performance.

In Google’s case study of KPMG, the audit, tax, and advisory firm, it is clear that the management team at the firm clearly recognized the importance of purpose-driven work. This led to a top-down initiative to strengthen employees’ sense of meaning, and their emotional connection to the impact of their work. They collected 40,000 stories, which led to a new purpose statement, poster campaign, and this video.

Furthermore, they found that employees working in teams where leaders effectively communicated purpose scored 30-50% higher on retention, satisfaction, pride, and motivation than those who didn’t. The impact that a sense of purpose had on their employees was striking.

This brings us back to my original question. Now that it’s even clearer how powerful a sense of meaning can be, as evident at KPMG, it’s important to ask – how exactly did the leadership at KPMG communicate purpose in a way that got their teams to buy in?

They got good at telling stories.

Look again at their ‘We Shape History’ video and poster campaign. The key to having their purpose connect with employees was their ability to communicate a great story. To get your team to buy in to your purpose, you have to be a great storyteller.

And I don’t mean a fairytale about slaying dragons. I’m talking about a story that captures the significance and importance of the work of the team. One that illuminates how meaningful that work is, and how it can leave a lasting impact. This is the kind of story that inspires teams to perform at the highest level.

But how do you tell a story in a way that inspires a sense of purpose?

According to Andy Raskin, an industry expert in strategic storytelling, this launch announcement by Elon Musk epitomizes effective storytelling. Dissecting Musk’s pitch, Raskin identifies several elements of impactful stories. Based on Raskin’s analysis, I propose that these elements also apply to stories that are aimed at instilling a sense of purpose in teams.

I believe that stories that inspire purpose have 7 key elements. They identify:
1.The Problem – What is the enemy? What needs to change?
2.The Urgency – Why does the problem need to be addressed now? Why not later?
3.The Reason – Whose life does this problem affect? Why does this matter?
4.The Promised Land – What would it look like if this problem is solved? What is the ideal situation? What should we aim for?
5.The Obstacles – What’s getting in between us and our ideal vision? What’s in our way? What do we need to overcome?
6.The Strategy – What are we going to do to overcome the obstacles? What tools are we going to use? What’s our plan?
7.The Evidence – How do we know our strategy is going to work? Why should we trust the leader?

At the start of every team project, it is the responsibility of the leader to take the time to illuminate the purpose of the team, and why each member’s efforts are meaningful and impactful. By addressing the 7 key elements of PURPOSE presented above to your team, you set the stage for your team to buy into your vision, and to see their work as meaningful.

Skeptical about this strategy? Notice that I actually followed this model and addressed these 7 elements in this post. And hey, the fact that you’ve made it this far may be telling you something.

The point is, take the time to foster a sense of purpose in your team. It matters, as evident in Google’s case study of KPMG. Take advantage of storytelling as your greatest tool in this endeavor, and make sure you address the 7 key elements of PURPOSE when you do so.

At the end of the day, leaders are storytellers. And storytellers are the ones who hold the power to inspire purpose.