How to Create Meaningful Introductions for New Groups

Amber Johnson Care for people, Leadership

Artifacts (16)

Whether it’s a conference for work or a dinner party with acquaintances, introductions almost always start the same way:

“So, what do you do for a living?”

For many of us, our work encompasses how we spend the bulk of our waking hours; it is a significant part of our identity. But it is not all of who we are. My colleague Jim’s title, for example, does not tell you that he’s training for a grueling bicycle ride across the Rocky Mountains this summer. Enrique’s title doesn’t tell you that he’s the father of five young children. It may be impressive to know that my friend Torri is one of Chicago’s leading civil rights attorneys, but it’s equally interesting to know she spends her weekends fronting a country music band.

When we identify ourselves by our titles, we miss much of what makes us human. We can also create the impression that our work lives are all that matter. For people who are in transition between places of employment, currently under-employed, or engaged in work that others may find uninteresting, it can bring a conversation to an awkward close.

At the Center for Values-Driven Leadership, we believe that all people matter, and that titles are only one reflection of their contribution to the world. Recently, we welcomed a new cohort to our Ph.D./D.B.A. Program in Values-Driven Leadership, designed for senior executives. These students will work together for two years, so we knew it was important that their first evening together model our commitment to them as whole people, not just people-with-important-titles.

The director of our center, Jim Ludema, asked each student to bring a memento or artifact that represented an important aspect of their life. On their first evening together, instead of playing an ice breaker game or having each individual introduce him or herself by their title and work history, he asked them to introduce themselves using their artifact. “Tell us what it is, and why it’s meaningful to you. Tell us about your family, your hobbies, your approach to life,” he coached them. Each student was given three to four minutes to introduce themselves. You can see some of our students and faculty members, along with their mementos, below.

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Some people brought items that were symbolic of their character or leadership philosophies, such as a compass or a Leatherman. Some brought family photos. Others brought small works of art that expressed something meaningful. Some brought hard-earned awards, such as military coins; one woman shared part of her family history in the form of a charm bracelet she’d inherited from her grandmother. The experience was moving, and helped the group make important personal connections.

Tips for Creating Meaningful Introductions for New Groups

Blogger Cadence Turpin offered a challenge in 2014 that inspired many, “Let’s start conversations that don’t begin and end with who has the most interesting job in the room,” she wrote on the Storyline blog. If you want to help a new group deepen connections without turning to résumé-based introductions or campy ice breaker games, consider following these tips.

1. Create space for introductions, rather than letting them be rushed. 
Real relationships take time. If trusting relationships are important to the work of your new group, then set aside significant time for introduction processes. I remember working with a non-profit executive who would always start conversations with new colleagues by asking about what led them to the organization. As people told their stories, and he shared his, I often watched the clock ticking minutes away: minutes I knew we needed for productive, strategy-driven conversation. It took me two or three meetings under this colleague’s leadership to understand that our work groups were always twice as productive once we’d established trust and understanding through his gently probing questions.

2. Use activities with an appropriate amount of emotional depth.
For many of us who have come-of-age professionally in the digital era, there is very little space between our personal and professional selves. But this is not true of everyone; for a variety of reasons, some have learned to be distrustful of sharing their personal selves with colleagues. At the same time, some people emotionally connect to others quickly and can over-share if boundaries aren’t in place.

Because of this, it’s important to create activities that engage the whole person without pushing them into awkward, deeply personal territory. The artifacts exercise discussed above is a good example of an appropriate approach: it allows people to choose what they share at a level of depth they find comfortable.

3. Be supportive and encouraging. 
Talking in public is difficult for some, even for accomplished professionals. Create an environment that allows for verbal and non-verbal signs of support. Encourage people to listen closely and ask questions if time permits. Applaud for each individual. Provide breaks throughout, so people can attend to important needs (like checking their smartphone) without checking out of the conversation.

4. Encourage the conversation to continue.
As the group leader, help your new group participants see how this initial conversation will foster the right working environment for the future. Encourage participants to ask more questions individually at breaks. Remind people that during most of your time together the focus will be on the work, but that each individual enters the group as a whole-person with lives outside the office or team. Establish communication patterns that honor the whole person.

Earlier this month, New York Times columnist David Brooks published a post called The Moral Bucket List. He wrote about two types of virtues, which he called the résumé virtues, and the eulogy virtues. “The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?”

Résumé virtues are important: in fact, for the executives we work with, they are absolutely essential. But work is more rewarding, more meaningful, more fun, and more productive when we are also able to develop our “eulogy virtues.” The next time you begin a new work group, or introduce a colleague to someone else, consider the personal virtues and characteristics you could share about him or her. We are more than our titles can ever tell.

Amber Johnson is the Center’s Chief Communications Officer.

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