There was no “golden era” where leading a team was easy. But as more teams switch to remote or hybrid work models, it’s becoming increasingly challenging to build and maintain a sense of connection and shared purpose among team members. Atlassian’s latest research findings confirm that developing a “shared understanding” is crucial to creating a high-performing team that can navigate uncertainty, communicate effectively, and achieve its goals. There’s no such thing as a perfect team, or a perfect leader – but we’re here to help you get closer to that ideal.

At its core, shared understanding means that each team members’ knowledge is aligned in three key ways: what the team is trying to achieve, why their chosen strategy gives the best chance of success, and what each person’s role and responsibilities are on their mutual journey. This understanding is built through clear communication, active listening, and regular feedback and alignment sessions.

With the working landscape and economy constantly changing, the companies and teams that will be successful will be the ones that can pivot direction swiftly and adapt to new requirements. To do that, teams need practical ways to get that “strategic download” from their leaders – understanding the fundamental “why” behind the work, rather than just going through the motions of executing the “what.” When team members are looped in on a tactical level, they can claim ownership over outcomes, and stay connected with changes as the work progresses.

Specifically, team members with strong shared understanding were more likely to:

  • Meet stakeholders expectations
  • Use resources efficiently
  • Develop new ideas
  • Take pride and find a sense of purpose in their work
  • Experience increased motivation, energy, and enthusiasm

In our fourth wave of State of Teams research, conducted in January 2023, with thousands of knowledge workers – 52% of whom self-identified as team leaders – across Australia, Europe, the USA, and India, we found that approximately 75% of individuals reported shared understanding in their teams. Of course, another way of looking at this is that a quarter of individuals were lacking a shared understanding; and the outcomes are not pretty.

Shared understanding with leadership is key

Putting teams at the center of modern work with our new Ways of Working offering

The data appears to be telling a story of teams disconnected from their leaders – many respondents seem to know what they personally should be working on, but are unclear on why. A full 82.9% felt that on their team, roles are clear and well defined, but only 65.9% felt that their team adequately develops an overall strategy to guide their team activities. Transparency with leadership was low, with only 60% feeling that they were able to see how decisions were being made.

Even more concerning, only 55% of respondents felt that their team seeks timely feedback from stakeholders about how well they are meeting their goals. They are working in the dark, and as a result, those leaders are not getting the business outcomes they’re after.

How can teams develop a shared understanding?

Atlassian, of course, is not immune to these challenges. Early analysis of internal research shows a clear correlation between goal clarity and alignment with productivity – watch this space for more on that project!

Setting the stage for team unity

Healthy, communicative teams are built on an open, flexible, and adaptable culture. Before you tackle the tactics of shared understanding, make sure this baseline is in place.

Foster a culture of psychological safety

When psychological safety is in place, team members feel safe speaking up and taking risks. When it’s not, it’s a serious blocker to shared understanding. For example, if team members don’t feel clear on their goals or strategy, they need to feel comfortable speaking up in order to gain that clarity. Without psychological safety, your team runs the risk of working in silent confusion.

Make time for everyone to feel connected to one another, and encourage team members to speak up and voice their perspectives. Make sure mistakes are treated as learning opportunities, rather than cause for punishment.

Communicate openly and transparently

Encourage team members to share their perspectives, ask questions, and provide feedback. Use tools like chat, video calls, or shared documents to stay connected and informed. When decisions are made, make sure they’re made openly, so the whole team can quickly get up to date with the change in direction and reasoning. This will help the team to integrate the core concepts more seamlessly into their work and produce the desired results more efficiently.

Use our team shaping practice path to gain shared understanding

5 ways to demystify the magic of high-performing teams

To help collaborative groups build shared understanding, we developed the team shaping practice path. To get your team on the same page, you’ll work through a series of Atlassian Playbook Plays – free workshop resources for addressing common team challenges – to build and reinforce the essential elements of shared understanding. All of these Plays come with templates so you can jump right in.

1. Define your team’s purpose and goals

Make sure everyone on the team understands what you’re trying to achieve and why it matters. The Team Poster is a visual representation of your team’s purpose, metrics, and goals that helps to align everyone around a common understanding.

Then, you’ll add logistics – introduce team members, answer FAQs, and share contact information. Now, you have a complete page to share with your stakeholders and network of teams to communicate clearly what your team is here to achieve, and how you’re going to do it.

2. Get total clarity on who is responsible for what

Run the Roles & Responsibilities Play to get crystal clear on who is responsible for what in your team. There’s nothing worse than tension between team members over ownership of a decision, or discovering that work has been duplicated. Doing everything by consensus is no better, and can cause decision fatigue and ineffective teams. Defining expectations as a group gives team members the autonomy to make decisions on the fly and gear their work toward achieving the team’s objectives.

3. Figure out how to work best together

Humans are unpredictable. We all have different values, working styles, and personal preferences. Add in the complications of distributed work and things really start to get messy. Setting Working Agreements for your team will establish how the group works together and set standards for effective collaboration: get clarity on the communication channels you will use, when, and for what purpose; discuss your individual needs and preferences as a team; and organize your working model. Finally, as a leader, you’ll set clear expectations for how to escalate when a key decision needs to be made, and how you’ll keep team members informed of those outcomes and reasoning so they can refocus on doing their best work.

4. Check for alignment

The Network of Teams Play helps to map out the teams that are crucial to the success of your objectives. Take some time to understand the strength of your relationships, assign relationship owners, and start meaningfully improving your alignment. These steps will ensure your group is connected to the right teams, and that everyone is working towards the same goals as effectively as possible.

Don’t forget to keep your own side of the street clean, too. Schedule regular check-ins as a team to ensure everyone is on the same page and working towards the same goals. Use tools like the Team Health Monitor to assess your team’s alignment and identify areas for improvement.

5. Celebrate successes and learn from failures

It’s good practice to acknowledge and celebrate your team’s achievements and use failures as opportunities to learn and improve your shared understanding. Run a monthly retrospective to gather these insights with your team. Remember that change takes time, as well as active management – we recommend making an intentional plan for how you want to approach change management with your team.

Developing a shared understanding is critical to building a high-performing team in today’s fast-paced, rapidly pivoting, distributed work environment. By fostering open communication, alignment, and a shared sense of purpose, you’ll create a team that is resilient, innovative, and motivated to achieve its goals.

And, just as building software is an iterative process, our practices are in a continuous state of review and improvement. We consider our customers part of our extended team, and we know that no one company will solve these challenges alone. We actively invite feedback and collaboration to help us collectively learn, iterate, and improve.

Shared understanding: finding the “why” behind the “what”