by Dr. Mario Moussa, Dr. Derek Newberry, and Madeline Boyer | March 18, 2016
One of the most important steps you can take in forming a team is to establish the rules about the team's vision and direction: what goals you will pursue as well as what is outside of your scope.

This is hard enough under the best of circumstances. But imagine how hard it is to do goal-setting with someone who would rather not even be part of the team. That was the situation faced by one of our simulation teams at Wharton, Yellow Lightning, in its very first meeting. We were facilitating an ice-breaker, asking each of the participants why they had come to Wharton and what they wanted to get out of their two weeks together. The conversation flowed smoothly as each member spoke to the importance of learning new skills and developing relationships -- until it was Ankur's turn to talk.

Ankur, an energetic and intense principal at a top consulting firm, had only known his fellow Executive Development Program (EDP) participants for a day, but he had already developed a reputation for bluntness. When asked about his own personal goals, he stayed true to form, telling his teammates that he had been forced to participate in EDP and that he had little to learn from the simulation. He felt pressured to wrap up a time-sensitive issue that his colleagues back at the office were waiting on, and he made the calculation that it was better for him to placate his real team than worry about supporting the simulated one he would be stuck with for two weeks. His flippant attitude set the tone for the first part of the exercise. Ankur would alternate being arrogantly overbearing and being completely disengaged. He often became engrossed with his iPhone while others deliberated.

What can we learn from Ankur's example? Start with the widely accepted claim: to be successful, every team needs strong, collective goals that members can rally around. Research has repeatedly identified this as one of the fundamental conditions of team success. Intuitively, this makes sense, since individual team members need to align their efforts and shared goals help facilitate alignment. In his book Collaboration, U.C. Berkeley management professor Morten Hansen calls a central goal the "unifying lever" of teams, and he urges leaders to make use of it. Sound enough advice, but one of the lessons from Ankur's relationship to his team is that, paradoxically, in order for team members to put the collective goals first, they have to feel there is a clear answer to the "WIIFM question": What's in it for me?

Yellow Lightning had lofty goals of learning and self-improvement, but this was not enough to engage Ankur because he felt this vision for the team was of little use to him. Ankur's attitude may be extreme, but it is not uncommon. How many times have you been on a team with someone who was compelled to be there by the higher-ups and thought it was a waste of his or her time? Even when all the members of a team genuinely want to participate, their motivations are often highly diverse. They may have a personal stake in the outcome of the team's efforts because it affects their own unit; or they may be seeking visibility in the organization; or they want to learn a specific set of skills. If these individual aspirations are not met through the team's work, they could easily become free-riders and ultimately cause the group to underperform, no matter how lofty its vision may be.

Our experience shows that team members are much more likely to embrace collective goals when they are aligned with personal goals and motivations. Like Ankur, we all navigate interconnected "webs of significance" -- Clifford Geertz's phrase for our multiple commitments -- because you belong to different groups with their own values, goals, and demands: the office, our home, the workshop team. You don't just let go of one group's set of concerns when you move to another group. The ties of these webs persist wherever you go and create areas of harmony or conflict with one another.

For just this reason, the goal-setting processes that are a critical aspect of team formation have to begin with a conversation -- even a negotiation -- about individual goals. When our teams first meet, we like them to start with a simple question: Why are you here? It may sound straightforward, but the answers we hear tell us a lot about what is motivating each individual as well as what their expectations are for the experience. The answers tend to fall into two categories: they are usually either developmental -- for example, an executive in accounting might be aiming to improve her leadership capabilities -- or they are about creating a certain impact in the organization, the market, or society.

The process of checking and aligning individual goals with team goals thus does as much to support team performance as it benefits individuals. Of course, it is not always possible to close this gap completely, but even the act of trying will often foster engagement, honesty, and trust among team members. This is how Yellow Lightning eventually got through to Ankur and made him into a contributor. When he initially announced his lack of interest in the team, others were unsure of how to handle it. Yet as the rounds went on, they saw that he would light up and turn away from his phone for certain types of decision-making discussions, particularly those oriented around strategy, which was his personal forte and area of expertise within his firm. Noticing this, the team began increasingly tapping Ankur to take the lead on developing customer retention and revenue growth strategies. He began turning to his iPhone less and less while becoming increasingly engaged and enthusiastic about his role on the team, offering support in an area where he had more expertise than any other member. Through this process of goal alignment, Ankur went from being deadweight to a productive force.

Dr. Mario Moussa, Dr. Derek Newberry, and Madeline Boyer are the authors of Committed Teams: Three Steps to Inspiring Passion and Performance. Dr. Moussa teaches in the Executive Programs at Wharton School of Executive Education. Dr. Newberry and Boyer are lecturers at the Wharton School of Business and Senior Consultants at Percipient Partners. For more information, please visit, and and connect with the authors on Twitter, @Committed_Teams.

Excerpted with permission by the publisher Wiley, from Committed Teams: Three Steps to Inspiring Passion and Performance, by Mario Moussa, Derek Newbery and Madeline Boyer. Copyright (c) 2016. All rights reserved. This book is available at all booksellers.