A Relaxed Management Style Gives Relationships the Space to Flourish

A friend returned from a humanitarian mission, glad to share his medical skills but troubled by the experience. He was bothered not just by hardships the local residents faced, but also by the sense that there wasn’t a spirit of fellowship throughout the team. His group’s mission had, oddly enough, been too well-managed. The service project went so mechanically, it felt antiseptic.

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For a project to really draw its participants together, it must be a little messy. A team coalesces when something goes awry and the individuals must band together to figure out a solution. Team members need to face problems in order to draw our each person’s personality and talents. If supplies don’t arrive at the mission site, who can improvise and build a makeshift water pump, heater, or sterilizer? If twice as many people show up as anticipated, who is adept at recalculating rations and communicating with a crowd?

Sometimes a situation calls for perfect execution of logistics, but if the purpose of a mission is not only to serve a group, but also to strengthen the team that provides the service, give enough space for the team to encounter challenges and devise solutions. The team will still get the job done, and it will also be better prepared to respond to emergencies in the future. Furthermore, participants will gain more appreciation for each person’s capabilities. A well-designed mission covers the crucial pieces as flawlessly as possible and leave less critical elements open to improvisation and ingenuity.

Mission-Driven Performance

A powerful sense of purpose is integral to high performance teams. As scores of research studies attest, this element is often more powerful than financial incentives as a lever for great results. It many cases, it is more economical, too. If you want to foster an intrinsic drive on your team, what can you do? Here are several effective practices:

1. Focus on how you change lives through your work.
Life-changing impact is more compelling and more important than simply delivering a product, meeting a budget, or increasing a profit margin. One of my favorite examples is that of Medtronic. Under the leadership of CEO Bill George, this medical device manufacturer established a tradition of honoring a person whose life the company has profoundly improved through stents, prosthetics, or other innovations. At an annual company celebration, the honored person speaks about his experience before and after Medtronic’s intervention. The entire company’s staff can instantly appreciate the life-changing impact their everyday work has made. As one senior executive told me, “We want to stress that even though you may push a broom or answer phones, everything you do helps to restore an individual to life.” 

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Every employee at Medtronic receives this medallion from a senior executive as a reminder of the company’s mission.

The mission-oriented approach is crucial not only for daily activities, but also for strategic changes in a business. Make the purpose of the work the central focus of any merger, acquisition, or collaboration proposal. As Medtronic’s George advises: 

I make a point – with every single acquisition we consider – to sit down with the CEO of the other company and talk about our views on the corporate mission, values, and culture to determine the kind of organization we could have together. Once we get agreement on the mission, the strategy, the values, and the kind of culture that is going to exist, then putting the numbers together is a lot easier.

2. Identify and emphasize a value that is based on virtue.
Financial viability is important to any business or nonprofit organization, but is there a deep impetus to make money if the product doesn’t provide a clear good to society? People draw more energy from the manifestation of core values such as health, equal treatment, or community engagement than they do from the pursuit of money, so draw attention to a virtue as the true heart of your organization.

3. Reaffirm the centrality of the mission and value system through consistent practice.
While the above Medtronic example highlights an annual event, the focus on life-changing work is woven into the cultural fabric of the company. Service projects, visits to patients, testimonials from users of Medtronic’s products, and communications from senior leadership all underscore the preeminence of the company’s mission and values. Your organization can identify ways your products improve customers’ lives or the future of a community, and then organize events and activities to highlight these results. Invite happy customers to talk to your staff each month. Take field trips to see your products in action. Track and report statistics that show how the people you serve are accomplishing goals in areas such as health status or educational attainment thanks to your work.

Virtually any organization has — or can have — a virtue at the center of its activities. Focus on this virtue and your team will be inspired to perform at its best.