Why Team Purpose Matters

A sense of team purpose for many teams is quite clear. However, in the current economic climate where resources are often constrained, the boundaries of your team’s remit can become blurry.

Organisations are trying to do more with less. Specialised roles with a small, specific set of responsibilities seem to be making way for the “all-rounder” who can pick up whatever is thrown at them.

Team purpose is useful for leaders to decide whether they’re in or out

With the frenetic pace of many workplaces, it’s common for unforeseen work to arise. Have you ever been in a situation where you wonder whether your team should commit to a task? It’s tricky as you try to balance being helpful with the potential to be overloaded with work that’s not necessarily yours.

Understandably, many environments reward and encourage helpful behaviour. Helpful is great, but only if it doesn’t stop your team from performing their own work. Team members who spend a lot of time helping others are generally well regarded, but may not actually be productive in their own roles. Overly helpful team members may actually be hampering team performance if they are consumed with tasks that aren’t actually within their remit.

This is where a sense of team purpose is useful. If you have a defined purpose for your team, you can more easily decide whether you are in(committed) or out (choosing not to take on the work). If you can agree with your stakeholders that “The purpose of my team is <something>” it provides a helpful guideline to your team and others in the organisation.


Don’t get caught in the middle

Without a team purpose, it’s more likely team members will be caught “in the middle”. This means they are performing work, without taking on the formal responsibility for it. Your team isn’t formally committed, but is still doing the job.

This becomes a problem when your team gets busy. All the helpful things you are doing are dropped in favour of the real work. Now people start pointing fingers. Now you need to defend your team so you don’t look incompetent.

You are stuck in a situation where people think it’s your responsibility to do the work. You think you’re just helping out. You’re neither in or out.

Why being “in” or “out” matters

What’s the big deal? Surely we can just help out here and there. Yes, you can. But it’s a slippery slope and your team purpose will help stop the slide.

Deciding to commit your team formally to work (“in”) or not (“out”) plays a useful role:

  • It gives your stakeholders a clear definition of your remit. This, in turn, drives your workload. It’s clearer to everybody what your team can take on, and what they can’t
  • It gives you a basis to push back on work that your team isn’t responsible for
  • It tells your team what their priorities are, limiting the tendency to be too helpful to others
  • When you’re in, you’ll put more effort into completing the work, because you’ve taken responsibility for the outcome.

Once you decide whether you’re in or out, you need to communicate widely what your team is responsible for.

Team purpose is critical in achieving your own objectives

Kate is leading a project to improve efficiency of her department. She has a team of people working for her. Kate’s manager has clearly stated that Kate’s primary objective is to achieve several benefits related to the improved efficiency in her department.

Part of the project involves understanding the key processes that will be affected by the change. During the project, Tim approaches Kate.

“Given that you’re already doing the process analysis, do you think your can help understand the processes in our department too?”

Kate’s team has some spare capacity, so she agrees to help out. Before long, the extra work spirals out of control and her team is overloaded.

The real problem in this situation is that Kate’s primary objective (the project) is compromised by something unrelated. In this case, she may be in trouble because her manager only cares about her project, not the other work she was doing.

Team purpose is useful to aid decision making in situations like these. Kate needed to decide whether her team was in or out. A clearly defined sense of team purpose (in this case, the project) would have helped to push back on Tim’s request. Or, at the very least, set some parameters around it so that she could pull back if the workload was too great.

It is a difficult balancing act, for certain. Pushing back on every request for help is likely to result in the perception that you’re not a team player. On the other hand, taking on informal additional work is likely to compromise your team’s true objectives.

The lesson is not that you should never be helpful. It’s that your stakeholders need to know where your team’s work starts and ends. A clear team purpose will go a long way in helping you do that.

Author: Ben Brearley

Manager, leader, MBA and former management consultant passionate about developing thoughtful, effective leaders. Find me at https://www.thoughtfulleader.com

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