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David Windle

Opposite Leg Ltd


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Shared Meaning Sets the Scene for the Perfect Team


 Shared Meaning Sets the Scene for the Perfect Team...

(which is why Barcelona is the best team in the world)

The best teams are built on a foundation of shared meaning; but shared meaning is difficult to find.

Meaning is slippery, it tends to fragment. Any collective of people is constructed of many meanings: some happily coincide, others inevitably diverge.

When a team first comes together the ground of meaning can be scattered and spread; the group lacks focus and coherence.

Take, for example a football team and a theatre ensemble, as our metaphorical groups.

Suppose the football team is training together for the first time, none of the players have met before. Some players, keen to assert their supremacy in the squad, may demonstrate particular individual skill. Other players may dominate the on-pitch banter while others may focus on quietly performing their own role, so as to prove their efficacy.

All that defines this team as a team are the rules of the game and the name on their shirts.

The meaning they inhabit is not a shared meaning, but part of their own individual narratives.

At this point, a coach may attempt to define and impose a shared meaning onto the team by encouraging a certain style of play or delivering a tactical decree. This may serve to shape the team, establishing conformity across the range of individual idiosyncrasies.

However, this super imposed shared meaning will cause as many problems as it solves. On the one hand it will guide the focus and give the team a coherent appearance, but on the other it will block the invention and personality of team members. Ultimately, this tension between individual player and imposed team meaning will erupt.

Shared meaning cannot be imposed, and is not definitive. Shared meaning allows both the individual to express themselves and the team to find balance without force.

Shared meaning breaks out when the team is set free to play; shared meaning is spontaneous. Shared meaning is improvisation – it can only be found in the moment by the participants, it does not exist before, it is not made in preparation.

The football team truly becomes a team when their play becomes improvisational, when it is created by them together as an instant response to circumstances. Which is why Barcelona is currently the best team in the world!

Take our second imaginary team, a theatre ensemble, and the same applies.

Theatre ensembles can be the most united of teams; their ultimate goal is collaborative, spontaneous creativity after all.

However, when the actors first congregate, they are a disparate selection of individuals, all trying to work out how they fit together.

Then the director may impose a shared meaning, may start shaping the group according to his or her vision.

After a while the actors will begin to take control of the ensemble and the performance themselves, when they begin to improvise and find spontaneous creativity. This may happen in rehearsal, in performance or simply in passing backstage. Shared meaning can be found at any moment.

So how is this relevant to all teams in workplaces?

What are the guiding principles for facilitating a successful team?

Firstly, a team must be allowed to flourish and find its own shared meaning, its own set of internal connections. No manager can enforce genuine team unity, unless they unite the team against them!

Secondly, improvisation is founded in acceptance. Everyone must be accepted as themselves – it is possible for the team to be a space where opposing viewpoints can be held, even debated. The strongest teams allow disagreement and know that it doesn’t mean shared meaning cannot be found.

Thirdly, shared meaning occurs when individuals allow themselves to change as a result of interaction, where individuals open up to finding new patterns together and the team begins to weave its webs.

Of course, there will be resistors to such a process within any collective;  the key is to allow them to resist, to allow their resistance to be part of the team and work with it in the open spirit of discovering shared meaning.

Have a look at our team building work to find out how we can help you further

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David Windle


Read more from David Windle

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