Team Purpose: The Glue That Holds It All Together

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Culture Code" by Daniel Coyle. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do the members of your team have a clear purpose with regards to their roles and responsibilities within the organization? Why is it important to flesh out your team’s purpose?

A shared team purpose allows for consistent decision-making, effective prioritizing, and elevated performance through interaction. Purpose answers the question: why do we do what we do?

Read about the key attributes of shared team purpose, why it’s good for workplace culture, and the problems that could arise when it’s missing.

The Key Attributes of Shared Team Purpose

A shared team purpose is the cornerstone of collaborative decision-making. Leaders use purpose to focus the attention of the group towards a singular goal through a set of small signals. These signals can include direct reminders of the company’s goals or indirect symbols such as catchphrases, iconography, and mission statements.

High-purpose environments are spaces in which the mission of a company drives the actions of team members. Think of purpose like the trunk of a tree, with decisions and projects forming the branches and products forming the leaves. All actions connect back to the central motives of the company. 

Team members make choices based upon future goals. If a member of the organization can visualize the direction the team is going, they can make decisions and choices to support that vision. For example, if your organization redevelops abandoned buildings with the goal of supporting small businesses to ignite the local economy, team members will make decisions that encourage small, local businesses to rent out their spaces instead of multinational corporations (think of a local coffee shop instead of a Starbucks). The clear purpose of supporting small business to ignite the local economy informs the decisions that team members make on a day-to-day basis.

The Benefits of Shared Team Purpose

Benefit #1: Change of Perspective. When dedicated team members perceive a task as important, they will put significant amounts of energy and attention into that task, typically increasing the quality of the work. 

The Gifted Students

In 1964, a Harvard psychologist led an experiment in which he tested 1st and 2nd graders in a local public school for their potential for academic success. He gave the teachers the results, designating certain students as “gifted.” The students, however, were never informed of their designation. At the end of the year, the “gifted” students excelled just as the researchers had predicted. They tested well above their peers and had better relationships with their teachers.

The twist? The test the psychologist gave the students was a placebo. It did not determine which students had a higher potential. In fact, the “gifted” students were chosen at random.  

The true subject of the experiment was the teachers. The researchers wanted to see how teachers would interact with students differently if they were given a newly defined purpose: guide these gifted students to excellence. The experiment revealed that the teachers treated the “gifted” students differently:

  • They were warmer and kinder to them.
  • They gave them more material to work with.
  • They called on them more frequently in class.
  • They provided more feedback on their schoolwork.

Each of these interactions was small on its own, but, combined over the course of a school year, they allowed for an increased rate of success despite the fact that these students were not any different than their peers. This shows how a clear purpose can impact perspective.

Benefit #2: Improved Learning Velocity. People with purpose learn faster. Make it clear how a particular skill will connect to the team’s purpose.  When team members understand the significance of a new skill, they will devote energy and attention into understanding that skill, improving their “learning velocity” (the speed at which a team improves upon a new concept).

Mountain Medical Center

In 1998, Harvard researchers studied the learning velocity of 16 surgical teams learning a new method of heart surgery called MICS. Though some of the teams were expected to excel, the team from Mountain Medical Center was expected to struggle. The team came from a lesser-known hospital that did not have an instructional background or significant resources. Despite this, Mountain Medical Center ended up performing very well, finishing in 2nd place.

How did a hospital like Mountain Medical Center perform effectively? Their team had an established and consistently reinforced purpose: we are learning this new method because it will increase efficiency and benefit our patients. The study showed that teams that received constant reminders of the purpose of their training far outperformed teams that did not.

(Shortform note: the Harvard study changed the names of the hospitals and doctors.)

Benefit #3: Deeper Connection with Both Teammates and External Clients. A central team purpose allows for connection and empathy to run through the company and extend to the intended client base. If a group’s purpose is clear, team members can more deeply connect with fellow group members as well as the demographic that the group serves.

The English Soccer Hooligans

Before they hosted the 2004 European Championships, Portugal sought out Clifford Stott, a crowd violence specialist, to help them prepare for a group known as the “English soccer hooligans,” a group of extreme fans known to riot following soccer matches.

Based on his research, Stott recommended seemingly paradoxical advice: the best way to police violent crowds was to stop policing violent crowds. He had certain sections of the police force ditch the riot gear for yellow vests and instructed them to begin educating themselves on soccer. He hoped that removing the riot gear would make the officers appear less intimidating and that the soccer knowledge would create an opportunity for the officers and fans to bond.

When the tournament began, sections of the police force that changed over to Stott’s method experienced an extreme drop in violent crime, with only one English fan being arrested. Fans felt as though the police were there to protect them, not to punish them.  In areas that did not use Stott’s approach, violent outbursts continued. 

Stott’s direction sent a clear message: we are here to help you, not to hurt you. This message immediately improved relations between the fans and authorities as the clarity of purpose showed fans that they had nothing to fear. 

The Consequences of a Lack of Vision

Consequence #1: Subpar Performance. Without constant reminders of purpose as motivation and guidance, teams fail to perform up to standard because they don’t grasp the big-picture framework of their actions. Work becomes tedious and work ethic, product quality, and communication tend to decrease.

Chelsea Hospital

In the Harvard MICS study, the team from Chelsea Hospital was one of the favorites to come out on top. The team came from an elite hospital with a focus on teaching and had a vast array of resources at their disposal. However, Chelsea Hospital performed poorly, ending up 14th out of 16 teams.

How did a hospital with all of these resources at their disposal perform so poorly? Leadership never explained the central reasoning behind the training or the purpose of the new operation. Because of this, the team did not understand the importance of their work and did not put forth significant effort to understand the process. 

The study showed a clear divide—either a team worked well, or they didn’t. The success/failure of a team was linked to the ways in which their leadership addressed different areas of purpose:

Successful TeamsUnsuccessful Teams
Framing(Why are we doing this?)Framed as an independent operation to benefit the hospital and its patients.Framed as an add-on to current procedures.
Roles(Why am I here?)Individuals were explicitly told their purpose within the team, from their individual skills to their contribution within the group.Individuals were never told why they were a part of the team.
Practice(Why are we taking the time to rehearse this?)Dry runs were practiced frequently to prepare new practitioners for new protocols and communication.Dry runs were rarely (if ever) practiced.
Feedback(Why do we need to discuss this?)Communication was promoted, and the purpose of feedback was explained in depth. Communication was not promoted, and the purpose of feedback was never expressed. 
Reflection(Why do we need to continue to do this?)Teams would take the opportunity to reflect on surgeries to discuss performance, future implication, and improvements.Teams never took the time to reflect. 

Consequence #2: Misinterpreted Intentions. When a group is not explicit about its purpose, others often misconstrue the reasons behind their actions. People fear that which they don’t understand, and a lack of a clear purpose can lead to a disconnect between team members and hesitancy or hostility from outsiders. 

The Belgian Riot Police

In 2003, Belgium hosted one of the largest sporting events in the globe. In an attempt to keep the peace, Belgian police tried to quell tensions by using a show-of-force. The Belgian authorities spent millions on riot gear and surveillance systems then put their officers through intensive training. They believed that, by showing their power, rioters would be discouraged from misbehaving. 

It didn’t work. Rioters destroyed shops, assaulted bystanders and fought riot-gear clad police officers. The authorities wanted to cultivate peace. However, because they failed to show the public the peaceful core of their mission, outsiders misconstrued their actions as aggressive and responded accordingly. The people believed that the police were there to punish them, not to protect them, thus sparking mob mentality.

Consequence #3: Inconsistency in Decision-Making. Without a unified purpose, team members make inconsistent (and often harmful) decisions without even realizing it. 

Send Back the Salmon

At a restaurant in NYC, a regular customer ordered salmon. After eating about half of the dish, she asked if she would be able to have something else as she didn’t enjoy the fish. At the end of the meal, the customer was charged for the salmon and was given a take-out bag with the remains of the dish that she did not enjoy. 

She contacted the owner of the restaurant, claiming that this behavior was petty and beneath what she expected from one of the owner’s restaurants. The owner, who believed his business existed to serve the customer first and foremost, was surprised by this decision and asked his manager why he made the choice he did. The manager said that he thought he had made the “right” choice. 

Because the owner had not been clear about the company’s core purpose (to serve the customer), the manager had no guidance in his decision-making process—leading him to make a choice that did not line up with the philosophy of the organization.

Now that you understand the key attributes of safety and the importance of its development, let’s discuss ways you can develop purpose in your workplace.

Team Purpose: The Glue That Holds It All Together

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  • Why safety, vulnerability, and purpose are at the heart of a healthy group culture
  • What makes some organizations more successful as a whole
  • How one of the largest unsanctioned cease fires came one Christmas Eve during WWI

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