Why Consensus Kills Team Building

by Mike Myatt

Why Consensus Kills Team BuildingI read an interesting post recently by Dan Rockwell (@LeadershipFreak) entitled “Six ways to make teams work” and found myself in complete agreement with Dan on five out of the six points. Where Dan lost me was on point #4 – Teams Decide by Consensus. In recent months I have observed a decent amount of politically correct discourse on the topic of team building and equality. The gist of the argument seems to be that for teams to be productive, employees have to feel “empowered” by having an equal voice. I can sum-up my feeling on this in one word…ridiculous. To be blunt, the concept of equality in the workplace has only made team building more difficult as employees seem to have a sense of undeserved entitlement with regard to their roles and responsibilities. And as odd as it may sound, one of the greatest impediments to building productive teams is practicing management by consensus. In today’s post I’ll share my thoughts on team building and equality…

Before I start, let me point out that I hold Dan in high esteem and find myself in agreement with him much more often than not. He is one of my favorite leadership bloggers, and hopefully we’ll still be on speaking terms after this post. That said, let me be as direct as possible with my next statement – While all people may be created equal, they are certainly not all equals in the workplace. While the thought that all employees should have an equal say may get some air time in business school, I have found that often times the theoretical discussions that take place in halls of academia have little to do with the realities that exist in the world of business. You must also keep in mind that the classroom is one of the few remaining bastions of true equality (at least until the grades are posted). The business world is not fair…it is regrettably most times rather merciless. In a highly productive organization the power and influence of your voice is earned through trust and performance, and not entitlement.

Team building basics are often overlooked by ineffective leaders or unproductive companies. However great leaders and highly productive organizations always focus on team building as a key priority. I have found that highly productive executives and companies clearly understand the value, leverage, efficiency, and economies of scale that are generated by assembling highly focused, motivated, and productive teams. If you are a CEO or entrepreneur and don’t see team building as a priority, then the text the follows is written for you.

I’ve often said that theory without action amounts to little more than useless rhetoric, and while most companies are spinning their wheels pontificating on the merits of team building, it is the truly great organizations that put theory into practice. Great leaders intrinsically understand that team building catalyzes collaboration, creates both disruptive and incremental innovation, facilitates a certainty of execution, and is one of the key foundational elements associated with creating a dynamic corporate culture.

It is one thing to be able to recruit talent, something altogether different to properly deploy individual talent, and quite another thing to have your talent play nicely in collaboration with one another. It is the responsibility of executive leadership to set the tone for great teamwork by putting forth a clearly articulated vision, and then aligning every aspect of strategic and tactical decisioning with said vision. A lack of clarity, the presence of ambiguity, obviously flawed business logic, or constantly shifting priorities/positions are the death of many a venture. However CEOs that implement a well thought out and clearly articulated vision, create a sense of stability and a bond of trust amongst the ranks. This in turn leads to a very focused, coordinated, and ultimately a very passionate work environment. It is not too difficult to get your crew all oaring together when these characteristics are firmly in place because they now know which direction to row.

I have been generally well regarded throughout my career for building extremely effective teams, and what I can share with you is that team building is not about equality at all. Rather team building is about alignment of vision with expectations, getting team members to understand exactly what their roles are, and making sure they have the right resources to perform said duties with exacting precision. Building productive teams is about placing the right people, in the right places, at the right time, and for the right reasons.

Team building should have nothing to do with ego, tenure or titles, but rather it should be all about competency, collaboration and productivity. Leaders must clearly communicate to team members what their duties, roles, and responsibilities are, as well as setting forth a road map for performance expectations. Team building, group dynamics, talent management, leadership development, and any number of other functional areas are much more about clarity, focus, aligning expectations, and defining roles than creating equality. If you examine the most effective teams in the real world you’ll find numerous examples which support the thoughts being espoused in this text.

Whether you look at athletic teams, military teams, executive teams, management teams, technical teams, design teams, functional teams, or any other team, you’ll find that the best of the best have structure, a hierarchy of leadership, a clear understanding of roles, responsibilities and expectations, clear and open lines of communication, well established decisioning protocol, and many other key principals, but nowhere is equality found as a key success metric for teams. Decisioning by consensus usually results in no decision being made, or an intellectually dishonest, watered-down decision that is so full of compromises, hedges and caveats that a non-decision might have been preferable.

While I’m a true believer in candor in the workplace, and have always encouraged feedback and input at every level of an organization, this doesn’t mean that everyone has an equal say, because they don’t…Moreover, those that hold less of a vested interest, that don’t have as much as risk, that don’t have the experience, or those that may be looking out for self-interest more than the greater corporate good should not be considered equal with those that do…

While I concur that there is no “I” in team and many other statements to that effect, such statements are not meant as endorsements for management by consensus. They are simply meant to foster a spirit of cooperation. Understanding how to lead and motivate groups and teams should not be considered one in the same with creating false perceptions of equality that don’t exist. Real leadership means knowing when you should make the decision and when you should let others make the decision. Smart leaders may choose from time-to-time to give away authority, but they never give away responsibility – ultimately they own the decision regardless of who makes it and/or how it’s made.

Bottom Line: Show me any team created of equals and I’ll show you a team that will never reach its full potential…

What say you? I won’t hold it against you if you agree with Dan (love ya Dan), but I may push back on your logic.

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Mike MyattMike Myatt, is a Top CEO Coach, author of “Leadership Matters…The CEO Survival Manual“, and Managing Director of N2Growth.

No comments

  1. Lots to think about here…which is fantastic, as I love thought-provoking blogs. I’m a manager who seeks to achieve consensus among my team whenever possible, partly because it creates a happier work environment and partly because I believe decisions that are not supported by team members may later be passively or actively undermined. That said, consensus doesn’t always lead to an optimum outcome, for example, solutions that are best for the long-term may be actively opposed because they are hard for the team in the short term. I wholeheartedly agree with you that team members who put self-interest before the team and organisation, or who have limited experience with the situation at hand, should have a ‘less than equal’ voice. Thanks for a really interesting post.

  2. Jeffrey Burnthorn

    No one is saying that consensus means equality. What it does mean is giving people an opportunity to voice opinions or concerns before moving on in the process. Allowing people to participate in the process in important to the success of any team. Your analogy of sports teams should be a great example of consensus. If the team plan is to run a specific play but one player isn’t on board then the play will not work as designed. Everyone must be in consensus. I’m afraid that word consensus doesn’t mean what you think it means.

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