The Art of Coming Together
Recently, I went with my daughter and her sixth-grade class on their end-of-the-year field trip. Two-and-a-half days of camping with about 80 sixth graders involved all the activities you’d expect at camp—from eating in the mess hall to making crafts—which we explored together in groups large and small. I guided, cajoled, and encouraged these kids through many activities. All the while it rained and stormed in unseasonably cool weather for May.
The weather along with such a diverse group of people in very close quarters sounds like a recipe for stress and chaos, right? Not at all.
I had plenty of time to observe the many different student interactions and think about the last six years I’ve spent getting to know them. Each student has a “my story” that is enacted in different ways all the time, and no matter the conditions, part of that “my story” shines through. There were many combinations of “my” stories against the larger backdrop of the “going to camp” story, which was a sub-story of the “we all go to the same school and have been together for years” story. And that story was against the backdrop of the school’s story: a public bilingual school of academic excellence that values diversity, inclusion, tolerance, integrity, heritage, good work, and community.
It seems like these students have learned to see their own quirks and worth by seeing and valuing the quirks and uniqueness of others—and their school’s “big story” reinforces this ideology for them. They celebrate and accept the individual as an important part of the collective, as in, the collective wouldn’t be the same without you.
In the mess hall, after the last dinner at camp, the kids—still seated at their tables—began to have fun. There was a rap that began with a soft beat on a table across the room, then picked up by a table closer to where I was sitting, and then a girl stood up and rapped a few lines. The kids roared with laughter and delight as person after person stood up and had a few moments in the spotlight. Someone suggested they sing the German National Anthem. There was a moment of quiet and then the children began to sing—quietly at first, then building with intensity. When the song was over, cheers and happiness created a strong energy through the room.
The experience was beautiful and touching: voices raised up in song—harmonious, synchronous, glorious. The students and I shared the same space and time, yet lived different stories. Theirs: the story of singing; mine: the story of listening—and all against the backdrop of the story of being at camp. Yet, simply being close to their story created a feeling of being part of it. What I witnessed was quite special: the art of coming together.
The power of story and relationships.
In psychology, there’s a theory of visual perception called gestalt (meaning “unified whole”), which refers to how people organize visual information into groups. Why? We strive to make sense of our world: to find order in chaos, comfort in the unknown, and connection points to anchor to and belong. It’s a way for us to negotiate relationships.
In these negotiations, we are engaging in storytelling—explaining our relationship to the collective while making sense of the collective’s story for us as individuals. We are looking to understand, create meaning, and make sense of our place in the world.
Story is a way we learn about the world around us, about our place in the world, why things are the way they are, and why we do some things (and don’t do others). We continually construct stories about our interactions with our surroundings and others in our lives. Each of us lives our own unique story. Each person’s story explains his or her unique place in the world. And each individual story lives within larger stories—some smaller and more intimate like the stories of marriages, families, or close friendships; and some much larger like stories of going to camp, or college, or belonging to a country.
With few exceptions, we experience stories as “my story” within an “our story” within a “big story.” By understanding these relationships, we can maximize them to build a story that resonates through mess halls, past camp fields, and into our workplaces and organizations to bring us together.
1. My Story
Everything starts with the individual. The success of broad organizational initiatives such as employee engagement rely on practices that regularly celebrate and accept people’s strengths, uniqueness, and individualism.
Focus on people’s positive attributes that contribute to the collective purpose. Help people discover their strengths and talents. Encourage “my story” exploration within your organization to help people see how bringing more of who they are to work helps everyone be more fulfilled and successful.
2. Our Story
Coming together connects people in meaningful ways. Each group or team has different reasons for existing and different goals or objectives for their work. People need clarity on why they are coming together and what their roles are. Understanding and cultivating these “our story” moments are vital to the success of both the individual and the team.
These “our story” moments require balancing the individual with the team and the team with the organization. Creating room and opportunities for people to blend their own stories with others on their team—to build “our story” from each individual “my story”—is the responsibility of everyone. As people come together, each person has the potential to bring out the best in another.
3. The Big Story
People come together around a common purpose, goal, or mission, working collectively to achieve that mission with a vision in mind. Sharing the mission allows it to be owned by all employees. It’s the shared purpose—the “big story”—of why people come to work and do what they do, and it forms the basis for decision-making. It’s crucial to clearly articulate and continually communicate the “big story” so people understand the big picture.
Effectively communicate the mission and purpose so people can connect their individual stories to it. Help people understand how their daily work connects to the mission by telling the “big story” often and in ways that are relevant, relatable, and memorable. Clearly and effectively communicating the “big story” can positively impact organizational goals such as employee engagement in two ways: first, it shows people that the organization cares about them; second, it illustrates how their individual work contributes to the overall mission.
Coming together through story.
Coming together is first and foremost a process more than it is a result—it’s dynamic and ongoing. There is a need to balance the individual with the collective and manage the tension that can exist within that relationship. It requires a purpose that is clearly articulated and communicated. Building upon the “my story” within the “our story” within the “big story” at your organization can unify individuals, teams, and their expectations and values.
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