One of the key aspects of the spatial leadership approach lies in the creation of shared meaning amongst the group being led. Although this would seem like a very obvious and straightforward thing to do, it seems to be done rather poorly in most organisations. Why is this and how can meaning be better shared?
To understand the challenge in developing shared meaning, it is important to initially understand just what is meant by ‘meaning’. The word ‘meaning’ refers to the gist or essence of something or some situation. The word can also refer to the significance of something.
From a leadership perspective, both of these meanings are important. Clearly leaders want others to get to the shared basic understanding of any given situation and to share the significance of that understanding in relation to how the group does what it does.
To understand this better, let’s look at an example. Say you look through the window of a house and see a shabbily dressed man getting a child who looks about 10 years old to inject him with a needle. You have just been told that there is a big drug problem in this neighbourhood. What meaning do you make of this situation?
Given the recent context that has been established, you may well see this as a situation where an adult is involving a minor in the drug world. However, if a man walked past you, saw you looking disgustedly in the window and told you that the man was a diabetic, then you may well change your interpretation of the situation.
The key word here is ‘context’. The context can be seen as the frame of reference in which interpretations are made and a context always exists. The key to developing shared meaning then lies in developing a shared context that can be readily applied in any given circumstance.
If we are to develop shared meaning with those we lead, then we must create a shared context for them. This is where leaders often fall down. They neglect to consider the context and often do not know how to effectively create it.
Leadership and shared meaning
If leadership is the capacity to guide forward, a team will have leadership if all members guide forward, together.
The management of change and transformation of organisations cannot be accomplished by decisions of super-CEOs or small groups of elites but by creating a shared leadership culture, where the parking attendant and the CEO both become part of the same learning and developing community. The guiding factor then becomes not so much the leader but the shared vision or collective aspiration.
What is most important in any creative project is the meaning we share together. Our guide in any project should be our quest for meaning. The leader is responsible for putting into place this shared vision and for staying grounded to it. Otherwise, the risk is to suffer from what some authors call ‘autism syndrome’, a phenomenon described as the gradual loss of awareness, in the midst of multiple tasks and emergencies of the original meaning and intent of a particular course of action.
Practical advice: In case of disorientation, leadership involves coming back to the original intent: What do we really want to do with this project? What is our core intention?
Leadership is inevitably an act of dialogue. The Greek origin of the word, dia-logos, actually translates to ‘moving forward with words’. Nodding in response to the boss’ idea, while not really believing in it, is not a sign of collective intelligence and leadership. The law of silence stifles creativity and sows the seeds for errors or abuses due to a lack of collective intelligence. Fostering open dialogue, on the other hand, allows a group’s intelligence to develop.
Leadership means guiding forward and thus implies an element of hope in the proposed direction. We elect political leaders to guide us towards a better future. We choose leaders in organisations in the hope that they will lead their projects and teams towards greener pastures. Hope is intrinsic to leadership.
Leaders inspire others in believing they can accomplish something greater together than they would alone. Look at a group of children playing, when one of them shouts, “Hey, let’s play this game!” and all of them rally with the shared hope that the game will be fun.
Team members expect their leader to seek and listen to their views: they want to contribute to making decisions. The members of your team also have a responsibility to you and their colleagues to be their own interpreters and clearly explain the meaning of their views and opinions.
As you will discover, engaging the members of your team to enhance mutual understanding is a great way of making work meaningful. Enhancing mutual understanding requires you and the members of your team to create shared meanings: common and shared understanding about, for example, the causes of problems, the reasons for decisions, agreed actions and so on.
Creating shared meanings requires you and your work colleagues to do more than just be your own interpreters, however, so that you can clearly convey and explain your views. Creating shared meanings involves an activity or process that I describe as inter-interpreting, which involves the following:
Interpreting together. This part of the process means helping each other to come to better understanding instead of imposing one’s thoughts, perspectives or interpretation on another person.
Striving to acquire understanding from each other’s perspectives well as your own perspectives. This activity is more than just being empathetic and more than appreciating how another person is feeling about an issue: it involves opening up your mind to different and new perspectives.
Working together to help each other to understand each other’s thoughts. To better understand each other’s interpretations and meanings of the information that you’re sharing with each other, you and your colleagues have to be each other’s interpreter as well as your own interpreter.
Seeing things in a new or different light. This activity helps to gain insights that enable you and your team to create new meanings that lead to better understandings of complex problems and better decision-making.
Being open to everything
‘Being open to everything’ means being open to the opinions, views, ideas, proposals, arguments and so on of the people you work with. Being open to others’ views doesn’t mean that you have to accept them because you’re bound to have your own views. Instead, ‘being open’ means having an open, rather than a closed, mind: being willing to at least consider others’ views and opinions.
You can develop an open mind as follows:
(1)Recognise that you’re not your thoughts: they’re simply expressions of what’s going on in your mind. You may be attached to some of them but you don’t have to be!
(2)Value contrasting perspectives that your work colleagues may have towards a work issue. See work colleagues who are questioning or challenging your views or decisions as critical friends: almost all will be acting with good intentions because they want to improve an aspect of work.
(3)Give people space and time to express themselves.
To conclude, the human organisations in which we work surely have an instrumental function in delivering a particular product or service but they also are living communities, places of belonging, sharing and accomplishments.
The distress we see at work is too often symptomatic of a sense of fragmentation and lack of shared meaning. Leading with shared intentions not only develops an organisation’s vitality and creativity but can also prevent much unnecessary distress.
(Lionel Wijesiri is a retired corporate director counting three decades of senior management experience. He is now an independent consultant and a freelance journalist. He may be contacted on email@example.com)