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TEAMING: 4 Mythbusters of Consensus

lisa 1.1webI conducted a team building workshop recently and as I was reviewing the four key elements for effective work teams with the group, notably (1) common goal and approach (2) shared roles and responsibilities (3) commitment to helpful team behaviors and (4) consensus decisions, it was easy to see the heads nodding when I spoke about the first three. However, when I spoke about the need for consensus decision-making, people immediately piped up with the following arguments:

1.        It takes too long. Undeniably, time is a factor. However, opponents to the consensus process take a narrow view when they only focus on the time needed to reach the decision. Shouldn’t we really look at the bigger picture?  A decision made by a few or based on what appears to be consensus is quick and easy.  Think of the typical scenario where the facilitator looks around the room for the approval of a few players. Nobody speaks up so he thinks everybody is in agreement. What if those in agreement aren’t the ones implementing the change? What happens when the silent dissenters are expected to do the work? We can end up with a train wreck or sometimes, nothing happening at all.  One only needs to experience “the meeting after the meeting” and the resistance or sabotage to understand how much damage can be done to even a good plan of action and the relationships on the team. Not only is the work of the team compromised, but the outside perception of the team and its players is as well. So, we are back to the drawing board to now decide on a fix for the problems that were created by the first decision and so on.  

Conversely, If you focus not only the time it takes to reach the decision, but also the time needed to implement, this might be a better judge of results.  A team will spend more time getting there, but the implementation will be much faster and easier with everyone’s support and buy-in.  And think about the benefits of the outside appearance of cohesiveness, commitment and determination versus the alternative.

Secondly, as facilitators and members get better at the consensus process, it will get faster. It also means that the members have to be attentive, active participants in the process. For those of you using consensus, suggest that the team step back periodically and review their performance for improvements. I find it may be the case where members need to get into the habit of taking their ideas and turning them into proposals or for others, slowing down long enough to really explore possible solutions before calling for consensus.

2.        You end up with either the first solution presented or the watered down version of any solution. That is a caution, especially in the “forming” stage of teams – when everyone is trying to get along and some members simply agree to whatever is presented to keep harmony on the team. Teams that have adopted and been trained in an effective problem solving process will be able to measure the value of the solutions being discussed. Team sponsors have to take an active role in the beginning of team development to challenge the team to develop better solutions. Teams can assign a “devil’s advocate” to flush out potential problems. Remember, consensus is the method of reaching agreement, not the process of developing solutions. Consensus can be the “fall guy” for what is really a poor problem solving process. Again, build the skills of your team members and use effective tools for measuring solutions and you will get better results.

3.        It causes problems among members and poor work relationships. Consensus does require individuals to focus on the long-term, common goal. Members must put aside individual needs and agendas. They will need to listen to each other, respect differing opinions and offer compromises. It also demands humility and the surrender of personal power. Every member has to be willing to say that he/she doesn’t “know it all.” As we say in training, consensus is the belief that you see something that I don’t see. And, the better the team gets at open, honest and direct communication, the easier it will be to reach consensus.

The team process, by its very nature, strives for participation from all its members. With participation, comes differing viewpoints. As a consequence and to aid in the consensus process, I suggest every team build their conflict resolution skills. Too often teams are formed without proper training and expected to perform. They hit the “storming” phase of teaming and look out! The team appears to be in chaos and is often, disbanded and teaming is declared, “impossible.” When, in reality, the team has progressed from “forming” to “storming.” (See last week’s blog for the Team Development Wheel.) They now need coaching and direction to resolve differences and establish norms. If your team is stuck in the “muck,” get help from others to establish protocols for handling conflict, communication, team meetings etc. Teams that spend the time to build a strong foundation and structure will finish the race first and avoid a lot of problems along the way.

4.        Making every decision by consensus is impossible. Here’s another myth to be debunked. Teams that have a well defined charter will know what decisions can be made by the team and which ones cannot. Senior Leadership Teams will do well to invest their time in determining the non-negotiables – those items that are beyond the scope of the team to change. I will never forget consulting with a team long ago that was exploring a new structure for their department. They had worked long and hard for months on defining the new structure and gaining buy-in and commitment. Each member of the team had learned new skills and grown outside their own job responsibilities. They proudly presented the proposal to the company’s President. I clearly remember his disappointment. “They chose to do “this?” he asked, ”It’s not that different from what they have; I wanted them to do something radically different.” I remember thinking to myself, “then why didn’t you make that expectation clear to the team from the beginning?” Don’t set the teams up for failure:  outline the vision, measurements of success and define the parameters of the decisions that they can make. If your team isn’t clear, I encourage you to go to your sponsoring leadership and gain clarity.

People often want to reap the benefits of consensus without putting in the effort.  Don’t we all? Think about the weight loss products that entice us by the thought of melting off the pounds with this pill or that diet.  I went back to the Religious Society of Friends (Quaker) Model of consensus and one of the supports for successful consensus suggests this necessary component:  “a willingness in the group to learn and practice skills for meeting participation, facilitation and communication. The group must encourage and assist all the members to develop these skills for the group to work well as a whole.” All the members, not just some. Consensus is an applied skill; and teamwork does require a full skill set.

If I go back to my original story, realize that a common goal, common approach, helpful team behaviors – key elements in teaming – all require decisions consented to and supported by the team. So, how can you truly have an effective work team without consensus?

 BIConference Lisa feature_crop


Lisa Dunbar will present The Road To Top-Notch Teaming – The Best and Brightest Ideas of Successful Teams at the 2010 Bright Ideas Conference on Friday, May 21st at Siena College in Loudonville, NY





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