Every organisation has a purpose: a sense of why it exists and what it serves through that existence. For schools, this is perhaps obvious. The school exists to serve its children: to keep them safe, to help them to learn, to gain the best qualifications possible, and to prepare them for the world (add others as necessary!). Alternatively, I like the staff-centred approach from Jonny Uttley and John Tomsett (2020): ‘by putting staff first, you are on the way to providing for students the one thing that will help them make good progress in their learning: truly great teaching’. But for a team, a generic purpose or vision isn’t enough. Every team needs a compelling, specific narrative to increase their belief in, and commitment to, the school’s cause – they need leaders who create and communicate a purpose for their particular school and context.
Beneath this layer of organisation-wide purpose, the teams within the team also require their own purpose – their way of serving or contributing to the overall aims. Team leaders, let’s say Heads of Year, Heads of Department, SLT line managers, and others, need to set their own vision, purpose and goals for their teams.
The first post in this series discussed what a team is and can be, followed by exploring team composition and how we go about creating teams that stand a good chance of performing well. After that general introduction, it is time now to dedicate each post to an evidence-informed area of what helps teams to thrive. In this post, I’ll look at what evidence says about how having a clear purpose and setting team goals can have a profound effect on the way teams operate; this will mostly focus on:
- Clarifying purpose and direction
- Goals and team goals
- Stages of a team
- Role clarity
1. Clarifying purpose and direction
In the wonderful The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle (2018) examines healthy, thriving cultures in a variety of organisations, codifying his findings into three areas: building safety, sharing vulnerability, and establishing purpose. For the latter, he notes how, when you walk into the SEAL headquarters in the USA, you are met by physical examples of their purpose and mission: twisted girders from 9/11, or flags from moments of conflict; at Pixar, you are visually immersed into their movies with life-size statues and installations. Coyle notes that these types of organisations understand and communicate their purpose ‘about as subtly as a punch on the nose’. He argues that high-purpose teams and environments are filled with small, vivid signals to link the present moment and a future ideal. Here is where we are; here is where we want to go. We know from research that team commitment is enhanced by a clear understanding of purpose and specific team goals, so it’s worth reflecting upon how well your team could articulate these. As Coyle advises, we should be ten times as clear about our purpose, vision and goals as we think we need to be.
Hackman (2004) suggests that every great team needs compelling direction: this will energise, orientate and engage its members. Teams cannot be inspired or bring the best version of themselves if they don’t know what they’re working towards and don’t have explicit goals. The goals should be challenging, but also consequential, he argues; the team must stand to gain something, whether that’s extrinsic rewards such as pay or recognition, or intrinsic satisfaction or sense of meaning.
Beyond defining your overall purpose for being, effective strategy development is enhanced by unambiguous goals which we’ll go on to discuss in the next section. Pritchard (1995) and his colleagues developed and implemented a team-based performance management system called ProMES (productivity measurement and enhancement system) that spans purpose, goals, and evaluation, and focuses on identifying objective team outputs, as well as the level of these outputs required to reach various levels of effectiveness for the team. Teams receive feedback referenced to these outputs, and are encouraged to develop plans that would help them achieve internally or externally set goals; with this system in mind, every project starts with clear direction and purpose, knowing the processes to follow later.
Reflection for school leaders: it’s easy to make assumptions when we lead a team: that the team understands the organisation-wide, and team-specific purpose already. That once you’ve said it in a meeting, it will be remembered forever more.But our reflections here should centre around not just what we have done, but we are currently doing to communicate purpose to our team, and therefore if we are creating a compelling direction for them to move.
2. Goal setting and team goals
Ratzenbach and Smith spend much of their seminal article The Discipline of Teams (1993), extolling the virtues of purpose and setting specific goals. They begin by asserting that team commitment – that is, common commitment – is essential to the success of the team. This is a basic requirement to ensure that groups perform collectively and not as individuals. However, the direction and momentum of this commitment is shaped by meaningful purpose, with the responsibility for the setting of this purpose coming from leaders.
In their words ‘The best teams invest a tremendous amount of time and effort exploring, shaping, and agreeing on a purpose that belongs to them both collectively and individually. This purposing activity continues throughout the life of the team. By contrast, failed teams rarely develop a common purpose. For whatever reason – an insufficient focus on performance, lack of effort, poor leadership – they do not coalesce around a challenging aspiration’. (Ratzenbach and Smith, 1993)
The authors continue with this argument by suggesting that specific, tangible team-performance goals are important. Indeed, these goals will help to define a set of work products that are different from both organisation-wide mission, and individual job objectives. In that sense, there needs to be an awareness of three things: the organisation’s overall objectives, a team’s collective objectives, and lastly the objectives of individuals within the team. The specificity of these performance objectives helps to facilitate clear communication, evaluation of effectiveness, and constructive conflict within the team. Specific goals allow a team to achieve small wins as it pursues its broader purpose, which in turn increase commitment.
They conclude by stating: ‘when purposes and goals build on one another and are combined with team commitment, they become a powerful engine of performance’ (Ratzenbach and Smith, 1993).
In a meta-analysis of the effects of goal setting on group performance, Kleingeld, van Mierlo, and Arends (2011) found a large overall positive effect size of .56 for goal setting on group performance; that specific, difficult goals were more effective than non-specific goals; and that individually focused goals had a negative effect on group performance, whereas group goals had a positive effect.
Reflection for school leaders: There are, of course, a variety of teams within schools. I’ve found that these teams are often time poor and task rich, and that a list of activities and admin often dominate meetings or briefings. Teams often begin in September with goals for the academic year, but how often are we referring to these goals, and do we bring in goals during specific projects? What sort of team-performance goals do your teams have? Are these an important part of your teams’ dynamics and commitment? What could you do next with regards to utilising these goals and referring back to them?
3. Stages of a team
It’s important for team leaders to have an awareness of the usual stages of team development so that certain interventions can be put in place. In the case of this post, our focus is on how we can communicate the purpose and goals of our team in its early stages, so that team members are aware of the team’s direction, and so that the team leader can predict and understand usual cycles of team development.
Drexler and Sibbett outline a team model which divides the life cycle of the team into two stages: creating and sustaining. Creating stages include orientation (why I am here?), trust building (who are you?), goal and role definition (what are we doing?) and commitment (how will we do it?). This leads to the sustaining stages, which includes planning (who does what, where), and then further stages for the team once established. It’s often tempting in a school, where there is a pressing amount demanded of our time, and in which we may inherit or work with an existing team, that we move straight into the ‘work’, before truly establishing our team in the creating stages.
The creating stages of this model are reminiscent of the early parts of the Bruce Tuckman model of team development: Forming, Storming and Norming (later followed by Performing and Adjourning). The forming stage involves team building, outlining roles, norms and expectations. Storming is then an inevitable stage where team members may become competitive, jealous, or experience conflict early on in the team’s life, which, when managed correctly, evolves into norming, where the norms and culture of the team are properly established. Performing is the team flourishing as a group, while adjourning is a period of closure.
Importantly, these models do not view any stages of team life as being irreversible. Teams move between stages when new tasks are created, new members leave or join, or leadership changes. Research supports the nature of these models, and should guide us to reflect on our own teams. Firstly, if the early stages of our team’s life, or indeed a project within that team, require us to orientate, build trust, set goals, and plan working methods – how successfully have we achieved this, and how much thought and effort did we expend on it? Secondly, like any set of expectations for pupils, or purpose and vision for staff, we need to over communicate them. The energising ‘creating stages’ of our team’s life shouldn’t be a distant memory: it’s vital that we regularly recap who we are, what we are doing, what our goals are, and how we work together.
Seth Godin (2008) suggests that we need to have faith in our team and its leader; we want to believe in what we do and who we are lead by. I will dedicate an entire post to psychological safety and trust in an affective sense during a later blog. However, the way a team is structured, and the purpose it is infused with, determines how much trust team members have in the team. For team members to trust in the team they must feel that the team is competent to accomplish their task. This reminds me of Doug Lemov’s Teach Like A Champion 3.0 (2021), in which he discusses how a teacher earns the respect and trust of their students not by merely ‘building relationships’, but by using their time purposefully and productively. The team members’ collective belief that they can be effective (Guzzo et al 1993) is known as potency, and has been found to predict team performance above group member ability.
Therefore, having a clear idea about the different stages of your team’s development allows a team leader to reflect on what might be required at that moment to ensure productive, effective team work and communication, and just as importantly, staff buy-in that the team is progressing.
Reflection for school leaders: it may be useful to ‘audit’ (my apologies, not my favourite word) the teams you currently lead or are part of. Can you identify a particular stage that team is at? I’d very much recommend looking more at the two models I have referred to, one of which is extended and adapted usefully by Andy Buck in Leadership Matters 3.0 (2018), to try and understand how your team is functioning now. This may throw up some challenges for you as a leader in the way you manage the team, but also may be useful in uncovering a few ideas about interventions that will help your team progress.
4. Role clarity
While there must be clear team-wide goals that increase commitment from team members, it’s also vital that each member of the team has clarity regarding their own role. Studies and anecdotal evidence suggest that teams benefit from a combination of individual members understanding their precise role within the team, but also understanding how other members contribute towards the team effort. We’ll look later in this series at how shared mental models and transactive memory can be utilised by teams to help them to self-correct and to be adaptable, flexible, and cohesive, but it’s fair to say that role clarity is a bedrock of those traits as a team. It is this individual clarity and certainty that allows teams to become adaptable, for example in the adjustment of task strategies or team behaviours in response to changes in the team or task environment. Hackman and Morris (1978, cited by Driskell et al 2006) noted that adaptability is one of the few universally effective group strategies, but a sense of clarity and competence is required first.
Interestingly, researcher Tammy Erickson (2012) found that when teams are collaborating, they benefit from a combination of role clarity, and being given independence regarding the ways in which they work. Without role clarity, team members are likely to ‘waste energy negotiating roles or protecting turf, rather than focusing on the task’. And yet, research also found that team members are more likely to want to collaborate if the path to achieving the team’s goal is left somewhat ambiguous. If a team perceives the task as one that requires creativity, where the approach is not yet well known or predefined, its members are more likely to invest more time and energy in the collaboration.
The leader’s role, therefore, is to ensure that the roles and responsibilities of the team members are clearly defined for the specific project. Leaders should help team members understand the project’s importance and objective but leave the exact approach to the discretion of the team.
Other research complements this, to a point. Dalenberg et al. (2009) found that members of military teams who engaged in a brief strategy discussion prior to mission engagement exhibited greater coordination and better overall performance, as the briefing clarified roles and procedures. Mathieu and Rapp (2009) found that teams that produced high-quality teamwork plans (regarding how the team will work together) and taskwork plans (regarding performance strategies for the task) early in their development achieved higher performance. Fisher (2014) further elaborated the distinction between taskwork and teamwork planning, and found that the two forms of planning produced distinct effects on teamwork processes. Specifically, taskwork planning impacted coordination, whereas teamwork planning impacted interpersonal processes, and both exhibited an indirect relationship to team performance. Sources from this paragraph are cited in Driskell and Salas’ wonderful paper ‘Foundations of Teamwork’ (2018).
Reflection for school leaders: role clarity can be difficult in school-based teams, because most teams will be made up of teachers whose role is predominantly to teach. How then, are we to assign roles within departments or other teams where members’ usual and main roles are teaching the children? If we consider a subject or stage team, we may do project-based work, such as developing an area of the curriculum or redesigning assessment and feedback approaches. This project will not be a permanent one, but nevertheless the team members need clarity about their role in the project – what they are expected to do, and what the specific goals are for their part of the team effort. If staff members do have specific areas of responsibility as part of their role, then this more permanent arrangement will require role clarity for what is expected of them day-to-day; again, this will include how they contribute to the team’s goals, and how their role differs from others on the team.
I have been guilty many times of getting carried away by tasks, admin, meetings, and the assumption that my team know what they are doing and have understood purpose that I am supposedly communicating via osmosis. Exploring the literature in this area has elevated both my awareness and understanding of the importance of communicating and considering team purpose and direction more, but also validated the notion that spending time on this area is vital for team commitment, bonding, trust, and therefore, performance.
We have examined some comprehensive findings on purpose and direction, team goals, team stages, and role clarity, and I hope that the links to a school context were enough to stimulate your own thinking about teams which you lead or are part of.
The next post in the series will explore creating a culture and environment that allows a team to thrive, focusing on psychological safety and trust.
Thank you for reading
Buck, A. (2018) Leadership Matters 3.0. John Catt, Woodbridge.
Coyle, D. (2018). The culture code: the secrets of highly successful groups. Penguin, London.
Dalenberg S, Vogelaar ALW, Beersma B. (2009) The effect of a team strategy discussion on military team performance. Military Psychology.
Driskell, James & Goodwin, Gerald & Salas, Eduardo & O’Shea, Patrick. (2006). What makes a good team player? Personality and team effectiveness. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice. 10. 249 – 271.
Driskell JE, Salas E, Driskell T. Foundations of teamwork and collaboration. Am Psychol. 2018 May-Jun;73(4):334-348.
Erickson, T. (2012) The Biggest Mistake You (Probably) Make with Teams. Harvard Business Review. The Biggest Mistake You (Probably) Make with Teams (hbr.org)
Godin, S. (2008) Tribes: we need you to lead us. Piatkus Books, London.
Guzzo, R.A., Yost, P.R., Campbell, R.J. and Shea, G.P. (1993), Potency in groups: Articulating a construct. British Journal of Social Psychology, 32: 87-106. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.2044-8309.1993.tb00987.x
Hackman, J. R. (2004, June). What makes for a great team? Psychological Science Agenda. http://www.apa.org/science/about/psa/2004/06/hackman
Katzenbach JR., Smith DK. (1993) The discipline of teams. Harv Bus Rev. Mar-Apr;71(2):111-20. PMID: 10124632.
Kleingeld A, van Mierlo H, Arends L. (2011) The effect of goal setting on group performance: a meta-analysis. J Appl Psychol. 2011 Nov;96(6):1289-304
Lemov, D (2021) Teach Like a Champion 3.0. Jossey-Bass, London.
Pritchard, R. D., Editor (1995). Productivity measurement and improvement: Organizational case studies. New York: Praeger
Tomsett, J., Uttley, J. (2020) Putting Staff First. John Catt, Woodbridge.