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Build a Team on Purpose: How to Instill Belief

Do you and your team know your purpose or do you believe it?

Understanding the difference is critical to building a purposeful team.

You've most likely heard this story before. John F. Kennedy was about to give a huge speech to inspire the nation to rally behind the Apollo missions. While he prepared in one of the hangars at NASA he took a wrong turn and found himself in a janitors' closet.

Inside, he saw a janitor cleaning his mop.

"Hey," said JFK., "What do you do here?"

With the President of the United States standing before him, the worker replied, "Oh, Mr. President, I'm putting a man on the moon," before rushing off to continue his work.

Legend has it that this moment inspired JFK's belief in the power of serving a "why" greater than oneself. Remember, "...ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."

The Power of Belief

Usually that is where the NASA janitor story ends. Yet it's important to consider one powerful element: the element of belief.

Let's imagine this janitor believed his job existed to “put a man on the moon.” Imagine him getting up on a usual hurried Monday morning; his car didn't start or he had to rush out of the house. Imagine him kicking the dirt saying, "Ugh. Here we go again, I have to go ‘put a man on the moon' today. I hate Mondays." Or on Wednesday exclaiming, "Hump day! Can't wait for the weekend. Only three more days of this 'putting a man on the moon' business."

In this thought experiment, it's impossible to conceive that this janitor wouldn’t be compelled by his work.

Yet we do it every day.

Even in nonprofits, upwards of 60% of people report active disengagement in their work. Engagement means being prideful and enthusiastic about the job. And most of these organizations, including universities, have compelling mission/purpose statements that have been carefully word-smithed.

We've become really good at knowing our purpose as leaders and organizations. We plaster it on the office walls, put it in the new employee binder, or look at it in the strategic plan every three years.

But instilling the belief in the purpose is where we unlock its power, especially on teams.

Belief is the activator of purpose. It binds people together in pursuit of a common destiny. It transforms both act and attitude.

And a deep belief in a purpose outside oneself can quadruple engagement at work, foster team cohesion, and even help people live longer.

Instilling belief in a team is not an event or a tagline under an e-mail signature. It takes ongoing, intentional strategy and design.

Go and read your mission or purpose statement. Imagine if everyone at every level of your team believed it with their heart, mind, and soul?

3 Ways to Instill Purpose

Here's how to start instilling a belief in purpose that goes far beyond simply knowing it.

1. Be crystal clear, all the time.

Researchers have found that just having a purpose beyond results isn't any more effective than not having one at all. Instead they found clarity of purpose determines its effectiveness for teams.

In a study from the private world, only teams whose employees indicated that the purpose was well-understood, enacted, and common among all levels of the organization experienced significant performance gains over teams with a murkier understanding of purpose.

Is your leadership team on the same page? Is every person at every level of the organization, doing any task on the same page? Can they all answer the question "Why am I here?" with common language?

Clarity is critical.

2. Create repeated shared and dramatic experiences.

People at every level need to feel the purpose of the work and see it up close. How do your people know when your purpose is delivered? How do they hear about it? Do they see it?

More important, do they experience it together?

This is not the same as a team-building retreat or the end-of-the year awards banquet. Such experiences should be intentionally woven into the everyday life of your team.

One way to do this is to routinely bring employees face-to-face with people whose lives have been changed by what you do. It can not only improve morale, but it can boost performance.

In a controlled experiment, Wharton School management professor Adam Grant found that callers at a university fundraising center who spent just five minutes directly listening to a scholarship recipient’s story spent more than double the amount of time on the phone and generated triple the donations compared to the callers who had no contact.

Stories are powerful, and committing to being story tellers and “story collectors” can activate your team’s belief in your purpose.

Before you teach someone what to do, make sure to show them why it matters through storytelling.

Bring people into your regular team meetings to tell their story. Encourage your team to tell the stories of impact to each other and incentivize it. Instead of doing “updates” at the monthly meeting have each area report out one life they impacted.

Instead of counting down the days to the weekend or complaining about a bureaucratic roadblock, a team narrative centered on purpose can be powerful. And this purpose-oriented narrative can foster both satisfaction and resilience.

3. Reward purposeful behavior.

Your culture is ultimately what you reward; either explicitly or implicitly. In most organizations rewards are self-oriented. We reward for efficiency, performance, effort, and loyalty. Self-oriented rewards often result in self-oriented teams.

If you want your team to be purpose and other-centered, reward for purpose and other-centeredness. The effects of this simple switch on team culture can be transformative and add to the “proof” that your purpose is being delivered. This proof helps instill belief.

Now go ahead and read your own mission or purpose statement again. Imagine if every person believed it with their heart, mind, and soul. It starts with belief.

Zach Mercurio is an organizational development consultant, university instructor, and professional speaker who empowers purposeful people and builds purposeful organizations to better the world and drive results. He helps organizations of all types design work cultures that support meaningful work and are purpose-aligned. He is the founder of the popular blog on purposeful leadership,, and is a regular contributor for the Huffington Post. Zach is the author of the forthcoming book, “The Invisible Leader” and is completing his Ph.D. in Organizational Learning, Performance, and Change from Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado.

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