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The Power of Shared Purpose

March 29, 2017

 

A little while back, we wrote about the five tenets of effective teamwork:

 

  • Drop egos.

  • Not death by meetings; but not unilateral decision making, either.

  • Play to strengths.

  • Appreciate frustration.

  • Trust + tension = productive cohesion.

 

This list is good but it left out an asset of vast value — so vast, we decided it merited its own article. So, today we're writing about the power of shared purpose. 
 
There is a growing body of evidence demonstrating that a strong sense of purpose boosts motivation along with the ability to endure discomfort. This is why following groundbreaking performances, so many athletes report that when they were really going for it, putting their bodies in the pain cave, their minds were focused on family, religion, or some other meaningful cause to which they were devoting their race. It’s also why studies have found that when employees believe their work has meaning, they perform better on the job — whether that job be solicitation, sales, or even janitorial service. And finally, although it’s by no means a positive, purpose is also why religious extremists are such a force to reckon with. Across the board, for better or worse, purpose underpins lasting effort.
 
In addition to its motivational power, when members in a team share the same purpose, that team transforms into a more effective, cohesive, and higher-performing unit.
 
In his excellent book, Team of Teams, General Stanley McChrystal and colleagues state that when teams are fused by a common purpose, they become quick and adaptable, especially in complex situations. Under normal, predictable circumstances, most team members know what to do: it’s simply a matter of following the playbook. This is true whether we’re discussing a corporate team or a football team. But sometimes those circumstances change faster than the playbook can — for example, a competitor enters the market with a disruptive technology, the opposing team turns to never-before seen formations, or a leader unexpectedly becomes ill and/or incapacitated. Under this type of uncertainty and confusion, teams with a shared purpose have an immense edge.

 

Purpose acts as the ultimate heuristic for quick decision making. When there are no existing rules or precedents for a given situation, individual team members can ask: Does my next action correspond with our team’s purpose? In the words of McChrystal, shared purpose, along with deep trust, “gives teams the ability to reconfigure and ‘do the right thing,’ and also, to know what the right thing is.”

 

Of course, the kind of shared purpose McChrystal mentions is not akin to a rarely-referenced mission statement or some motivational poster on the wall. For a purpose to be powerful, not only must all team members truly believe in it but they must also feel it and it needs to be reflected in the team’s operations.

Ask yourself:

 

  • If you coach, manage, or teach, do your athletes/employees/students deeply feel a shared sense of purpose?

  • What about in your own personal, and even romantic, relationships? Do you have a shared purpose(s) with those whom you care about most?

 

Skeptics will inevitably say that all this talk about purpose is “soft.” But they are mistaken. As a matter of fact, cultivating a shared purpose leads to many “hard” results. In an athlete-coach relationship, it’s how an athlete knows whether or not to continue with a workout when they feel off or perhaps a little niggle in their body. In a student-teacher relationship, it’s why a student remains ethical when they may otherwise be tempted to cheat. In the workplace, it’s how employees learn to make decisions without needing micro-management (something that is liberating for all parties involved).

 

Cultivating and internalizing a shared purpose isn’t easy. It requires time, energy, and an environment that is psychologically safe. And though the intricacies of exactly how to develop such a purpose are too long for this article, we do cover them in more detail (a whole chapter, actually) in Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success, our new book.

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