Picture this: a team is working on a large report together. Everyone is assigned individual pieces to get done by a certain deadline. Everything's in place and on schedule. However, the team member responsible for the content of the first two sections starts running behind.

“No big deal!” she thinks to herself as she nonchalantly flips through her calendar. “I’m only going to be a couple of days late.”

In the grand scheme of things, she assumes a handful of days is no sweat — so she doesn’t bother to loop her teammates in on her delays.

What she doesn’t realize is that another team member is eagerly waiting on the information in her sections in order to complete his own. The designer can’t create the graphics until he reads the content. The person editing the report reserved a specific day in her schedule to get that task done—but now there’s no way the report will be ready by then.

Sound familiar?

It’s easy for people to miss the forest for the trees and have a severe lack of understanding about how their own individual work fits into the greater picture. And unfortunately, failure to understand these interdependencies often leads to the frustrating domino effect we outlined above.

As a leader, it’s up to you to help your team members understand their impact and see the puzzle — rather than their own select pieces. But, why is that important and how can you do it effectively? Let’s explore.

The Whole Picture: Why it Matters For Your Team

When it comes to an individual’s experience on a team, there’s a beloved children’s story that illustrates the problems that can occur without adequate understanding and communication:

“Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it.”
~ A.A. Milne

Winnie the Pooh

The lesson: a person's experience varies greatly depending on where they sit.

“Where you are in an organization and the journey that you go through, a lot of it depends on your position,” explains Sarah Shin, Head of HR at Wrike. “The goal is to all get down the stairs and not be Winnie the Pooh.”

To be successful, your team needs more than just a common understanding of a shared goal — they also need a common understanding of how they’ll reach it together and how their actions and work impact the rest of the team.

Think about it: for Christopher Robin, that trip down the stairs was simple and straightforward. But for poor, beat up Edward Bear (AKA Winnie)? Just the opposite. If Christopher Robin had been able to take a step back and gain a better understanding of others’ experiences, he could’ve tweaked the process to make things easier for his teammate.

Even further, giving team members the ability to see their work within a larger context will lead to happier, more productive workers. In his review, “Research in Organizational Behavior,” Brent D. Rosso, PhD, discovered that finding meaning in one’s work increases everything from motivation and engagement to job satisfaction and individual performance, while decreasing absenteeism and stress.

Check out our recent post on finding purpose in work, where we lay out 3 keys to instilling purpose in your team.

Helping Team Members Understand Where They Fit

From large teams to distributed teams, getting everybody on the same page can be a challenge. But it’s not impossible.

“The leader’s job is to curate,” explains Melissa Thomas-Hunt, Senior Associate Dean, Global Chief Diversity Officer and Leadership Professor at Darden University. “So, leaders must have an acute sense of the expertise and potential insights of members. It is then their job to curate team members, making tacit knowledge or expertise explicit, and directing the process.”

It is then their job to curate team members, making tacit knowledge or expertise explicit, and directing the process.”

So, how do you pull that off? Here are a few key strategies you should implement to help your team members understand where their own work fits in.

1. The Kickoff Meeting: Start Out Right

According to an Interact/Harris poll as reported by the Harvard Business Review, a whopping 91% of employees say communication issues drag their executives down. Furthermore, a lack of clear directions was one of the most commonly cited complaints of employees about their own bosses.

91% of employees say communication issues drag their executives down
Image source: Harvard Business Review

The solution is to hold a kickoff meeting to get everyone on the same page.

“One of the first things is to have an initial meeting,” explains David Coleman, Senior Analyst at Collaborative Strategies. “Before the team starts on a project, have a conversation. It’s a way for people to understand the context of the other people on the team. Once they understand and trust someone else, the chance they’re going to work together better is much higher.”

This will help each team member understand what happens before the project ever reaches their desk, as well as what will happen once their portion is done — making them that much more likely to understand the importance of holding up their end of the bargain.

Takeaway: kick off each project with a frank conversation about the whole picture. It’ll accomplish far more than you think.

2. Cross-Training: Learn How Others Work

Match up team members with someone from a different role or department. Allow your team to learn how others work. This cross-training immerses your team in the work of other people, giving them insight into how the rest of the project will be accomplished.

Some teams have a formal process in place to encourage this cross departmental training, while others are a little looser and merely schedule meetings or conversations.

Regardless of how specifically you choose to proceed, the important thing to remember is that your team members don’t need to be pigeonholed. Allow them to branch out and shadow another team member or gain some hands-on experience in another role. This will ultimately increase their understanding of the larger project, and lead to a deeper appreciation for the organization.

3. Peer Pressure: Emphasize the Human Element

Peer pressure. It was a real struggle in high school. And, believe it or not, it can be just as effective now.

“I’ve seen that peer pressure can be a pretty big force on project teams,” confirms Coleman. But, peer pressure in a professional environment looks different from the negative connotations of our adolescence days. This time around it means emphasizing the human element of the work that’s getting done.

Let’s take a look at this example. Which statement would motivate you more to get your work done?

  1. “Submit by the deadline or the project won’t be completed on time.”
  2. "Submit on time or we'll go over our budget."
  3. “It’s important you submit by the deadline. Jason is responsible for the steps after yours, and it’s not fair to put him in a major time crunch to get his portion done and keep the project on schedule.”

If you went with the last option, you aren’t alone. Emphasizing how team members impact other team members can often be far more powerful than illustrating how they impact the project or the bottom line. It’s not always about the work — it’s about the people.

Science backs this up. A study conducted by researchers at the University of Iowa found that attempting to please coworkers is a much stronger motivating force than a higher salary.

Takeaway: emphasize the impact your team members have on their fellow members—and not just the work itself.

Emphasize the impact your team members have on their fellow members—and not just the work itself.

4. Big Picture Thinking: Repeat Till it Sticks

As with anything, you can’t just say something once and assume it will stick. You need to illustrate the big picture over and over again.

“If you make the big picture a consistent part of your message, it will be understood—an organically created piece of knowledge,” explains leadership expert and author, Kevin Eikenberry, in his post.

Make the big picture a core part of all your messaging. You can even incorporate a discussion of it into your performance reviews. Consistently emphasize it with your team members, and soon that understanding will be inherent.

Wrapping Up

It’s easy for team members to become so focused on their own individual trees that they completely lose sight of the great big forest they’re standing in. It’s your job as a leader to zoom out and assist them in understanding where their work fits in and what impact it has on the project, on the company, and on the larger business objectives.

Implementing these four key strategies will make that process easier and ultimately lead to a happier, more productive, and more collaborative team.

Author Bio:
Kat Boogaard (@kat_boogaard) is a Midwest-based writer, covering topics related to careers, self-development, and the freelance life. She is a columnist for Inc., writes for The Muse, is a career writer for The Everygirl, and a contributor all over the web.