By Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton

During these challenging times, a team’s mission, vision and values statements can be a powerful force in providing direction and focus. When your guiding concepts are clear, decisions for team members become easy.

We understand the argument for clarity around an inspiring why has been a staple of management books for some time. You’d think by now that most managers would be following the advice. Apparently, it’s not that easy.

Try this experiment with your team. With no prompting about the right answer, ask each employee individually to write down the core mission of your team. If all the answers are pretty much identical, and what you’d want them to say, you pass with flying colors. But we’ve done this exercise with many groups—even those you would think have a clear purpose such as health care teams—and the answers usually range dramatically.

The concepts of vision, mission, and values represent a protective fence for team members. While most of us humans like to explore, during times of stress we also long to feel safeguarded. Leaders with a strong adherence to these principles enable us to “walk the fence” with a sense of security. Those who don’t focus on their mission and values during a crisis squander a golden opportunity to create a bonding force among team members.

Now we admit many of these team mission statements tend to be too generic and dull to do much good: “Customers come first.” Really, how? While some are so complex as to baffle an astrophysicist: “We will disseminate error-free solutions and endeavor to monetize performance-based benefits with synergy while continuing to continually facilitate progressive meta-services.” So stirring. We might have to borrow a hanky (sniff).

To avoid the generic, complex, or downright dull, there are a few keys to making the exercise of creating a team’s purpose statement most meaningful. The first step is to encourage input from your people. This isn’t done by asking: “What’s our purpose?” Instead, it should be more human. Try asking, “Why do we exist as a team?” or “What job do we do for customers?” or “What gets you excited to come here every day?”

We were once working with the I/T department of a nationwide bank. The bank had an overall corporate mission to make customers financial lives more successful. Surveys showed members of the I/T team, however, weren’t clear on how their work impacted that big mission—since they never saw or spoke with bank customers. One hundred percent of their work was for internal clients.

They met as a team and came up with a purpose: “We enable great customer experiences.” That might not seem too sexy, but the word “enable” meant a lot to this group of programmers, system architects, and help desk staff. The I/T folks then developed a list of “enablers”—specific values they expected each other to live. Those seven values included such things as: “We anticipate and act with urgency,” “We empower people to take action,” and “We are courageous.” Finally, under each enabler, they then came up with specific behaviors and examples to help employees understand “What it looks like” and “What I can do today.” So, for example, under the enabler “We are courageous,” employees found that it was okay and expected to ask tough questions of each other and their managers, strongly advocate for customers, and challenge the status quo in processes and design.

That level of specificity helped these information technology workers better understand their unique roles, how they could make the bank succeed, and truly help customers’ financial lives through their work behind the scenes writing code, fixing computers, and managing the network. We also think the increased engagement of her employees was a big contributing factor to the leader of this group being promoted to the executive team a year later.

We’ve conducted this kind of purpose exercise with hundreds of teams. One of our favorite cases was working with the team of Dr. John Charpie, director of pediatric cardiology at the University of Michigan Medical School, which comprises a few dozen nurses, physicians, researchers, techs, and environmental services professionals who take care of very sick children with heart problems. The purpose statement Charpie led his team to was: “We turn our patients’ and their families’ worst day into their best day.” Now that’s a source of unity and inspiration.

Your team can emerge from this crisis stronger than ever, but it will take a determined focus on what matters most. To quote FDR: Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear. Find your why.

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