Department Vs. Department: Leadership and Internal Tension


The leader's role is to periodically remind everyone what the team's purpose is. Make sure that your team's culture celebrates purpose above function.

     Why do the speed-to-market folks struggle so with the people up in legal and accounting? Why does the church administrator think the music director is the anti-Christ? What makes a security guard so deeply resentful of a professor who just wants her classroom unlocked for an evening class?

     Unless you have a team of one, such internal tensions are absolutely inevitable at one level or another. The particles inside the team moving in what feels to them like different directions cause friction in the clouds which can quickly turn into thunder and lightning. When moving inside the relatively enclosed "space" or your organization's structure, one employee or department can very easily cause pain for another employee or department. This happens when individuals or whole divisions on the same team lose track of their shared purpose and become trapped at a merely functional level. In other words, functionaries clash when they do what they do and forget why. Functions can be so perpendicular that those who do those functions crash into each other at the intersections.

     Think again about the security guard and the faculty member. She calls the security office and says, "Look, I have a class at 8:00 pm in room 301A and it’s locked. Please send someone immediately to unlock. I have thirty students stranded in the hallway."

     Instead of an apology and a gracious, "I'll be right there," she gets a begrudging agreement to come unlock whenever he can manage to get there. Why is he so angry?

He's angry because he sees his job as locking the buildings at 6pm. He has done that and now along comes some idiot college professor who wants a room unlocked at 8pm. How dare she? He just got that room locked at 6!

     The problem is he has forgotten his purpose; facilitating the educational process. He only knows his function; locking doors. He forgot his purpose was to enable her to teach. He only knew his job was to lock the doors. Her need to do her job in a room he had just locked ran contrary to that. That is all he cared about. When employees forget their purpose and remember only their function, they can get pretty cantankerous with those whose functions inconvenience or contradict theirs.

     What to do?

     The leader's role is to periodically remind everyone what the team's purpose is. Be specific. Massage purpose down into the deep tissue of the organization. Make sure that your team's culture celebrates purpose above function. Any organization can train employees and volunteers what to do. The "what team" may quickly degenerate into pretty lethal internecine warfare. It is the "purpose team" that will work together in true excellence. Any team can know what to do. The great teams remember why they do it.

     Here is a parable.

     The mayor met with citizens willing to form a volunteer fire department. He handed out written assignments to each of them. One was responsible for the hoses. Another given the responsibility for the maintenance of the engine. A third was to answer the phone and a fourth was to drive the fire truck. The volunteers read their assignments and excitedly answered in turn when the mayor asked, "What is your job?"

     The first one said, "The hoses."

     The second one exclaimed, "Engine maintenance is my job."

     The third said, "Mine is to answer the phone and you can depend on me."

     The fourth spoke right up with pride. "My job is to drive the fire engine."

"No! " shouted the mayor. "You're all wrong! Your job is to fight fires!"

     Great leaders teach their teams that purpose trumps function.

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