Why the "Why" Matters to Team Success

In today’s millennial workplace, team members seek a sense of purpose.
Team metrics play a big role in improving how well a work team performs, from improving employee habits to increasing work efficiency. Bringing a team’s success rate from “good” to “great” requires one more important ingredient: that every team member knows why they are doing what they are doing. That can make a key difference in team dynamics, especially with today’s socially conscious, purpose-driven millennial generationand it’s crucial that team leaders understand it.Two decades ago, Sally got a chance at an administrative position with a technology company that developed desktop support software. However, in the interview, one of the first things she was asked was, “What is your skill level using Microsoft Office products?” At the time, of course, Office did not yet dominate the business productivity software market; there were several competing products, and many people had experience working with one type of software and not the other.

Such was the case with Sally, and that could have sunk her interview. However, she answered the question calmly. “I have only worked with WordPerfect and never with Microsoft Office.”

“How do you expect to fit in?” the manager conducting the interview asked.

“Before I start, I will learn what I can,” Sally answered, “and I will continually develop my skills.”

The manager liked her “can do” attitude, and took a chance on Sally, even though her skill set was initially minimal.

Fast forward more than 20 years, and Sally was a manager in the same company, which was now an industry leader in developing online support products. Team metrics helped her identify a budding problem: Two of the teams for which she was responsible weren’t performing that well, only just meeting the standards required of them. There were no indications that team members were showing initiative or even helping each other accomplish tasks. And their assignments, while completed on time, were usually completed just before the deadline and no earlier.

She talked to each team leader individually about what measures could be taken to improve the teams’ performance.

“I don’t know why they’re not doing better,” one of her team leaders said during the conversation. “I hired and brought in only people with impeccable resumes who have the exact experience and skills needed to get the job done. None of them seem really motivated, though. They do the tasks they’re required to handle to meet our weekly and quarterly quotas, yet they’re not interested in pushing past that. In fact, one of my team members told me he doesn’t see the point in doing extra work.”

Sally thought about that conversation for a few days. The teams were made up of smart, skilled people and were led by experienced employees whose drive and initiative had propelled them into team leadership positions. It was the same trajectory she had been placed on when she got her first job with the company and committed herself to learning the skills she needed to succeed.

She remembered that at each point along the way, when she joined a new team, the team leader always made the goals and objectives of the team clear and made sure everyone understood them. They also explained why these goals had been sethow they fit into the bigger picture for the company. Maybe that was the issue: the newer employees didn’t have a clear view of the impact their team’s contributions were making and how they fit.

The next day she brought both team leaders in and gave them four key elements to building the foundation of a team:

  • Focus on the team’s purpose. Great teams understand the greater purpose: who they are in service of and why what they do matters. However, if all team members understand who their work impacts, including all of the stakeholders from customers to shareholders to their colleagues and other departments, then they’ll better understand what’s at stake by accomplishing their mission and going beyond the bare minimum requirements.
  • Make sure leadership is relevant and strong. Great leaders are able to think creatively, see the big picture and act dynamically to maintain team success. They stay fresh, effective, and relevant, applying what they’ve learned to guiding and motivating their team. In today’s changing workplace, if a leader is having the team do the same thing they did even three years ago, their levels of success will fall dramatically. Leaders must constantly evaluate and apply what works.
  • Let team members find ways to improve efficiency. Great teams have figured out how to get the most from each other in ways that fit into the team’s mission and the organization. Sometimes this means that different people take the lead at different points or shift into different functions on different projects. They might partner with different people on the team so that the process flows smoothly. When all team members understand and focus on the team’s purpose, they’re able to make contributions that drastically improve the team’s efficiency and performance.
  • Move in the same direction together. While most teams have a leader who knows the overall direction and purpose of a team, the rest of the team is often left in the dark. That gives them only a partial picture, at best, of what their team leader expects. They’re flying blind. Why should they do extra work or try to improve a process when they don’t know if what they do will help or hinder the team’s progress? Great teams understand where they’re going, have a sense of purpose, and know how to bring everyone on the team along, creating a sense of mutual direction and, most importantly, knowing how and why what they do matters.

With this blueprint in hand, Sally worked with the team leaders so that they could clearly articulate the answer to the most important question every employee asks: “Why does what we do matter?” She had them visualize the impact their team’s output had on customers and on other teams involved in the overall project. And she told them to help each team member visualize that impact as well.

This was a turning point for both teams. Unlike past generations of workers, who generally just did the task they were told to do without asking too many questions, the millennial generation wants to know why it is important to do the task they’re doing. They take a big-picture view of their work, their lifestyle, and its impact on society and the world as a whole. When the team leaders explained the purpose of their project more clearly and connected it to the world beyond their cubicles, most of their team members’ investment in the work increased dramatically. Overall metrics jumped for both teams.

A few of the team members did not share that sense of purpose, even after their team leaders began clarifying the team’s goals and meaning. Ultimately, some of them chose to go elsewhere. That created another opportunity within each team to bring in new members. Sally suggested to both team leaders that they look beyond the “perfect” resume and consider attitude and enthusiasm in their search for new members.

This, too, was a success. Both team leaders found new members, either from hiring externally or hiring from within the company. And while the skill sets of some of the new members were barely adequatejust as Sally’s skills had been when she was hired 20 years earliertheir willingness to learn and improve more than outweighed the deficiency. Even better, the entire team was able to help each new member improve, because they knew what was needed from each person on the team and felt more empowered to help each other succeed.

A great team is one that repeats their performance and generates high-level outcomes again and again. To do this, every member has to have a drive to be the best and have a high level of commitment to the team. They each have a high level of confidence in their abilities and an uncanny level of trust in the other members. All of these elements are formed when every member of the team understands what they are working to accomplish and why. When a team knows why they do what they do, they accomplish impressive thing

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