Why Teams Fail, Part 3: Lack of Team Commitment and Buy-In to Decisions

How to Overcome Lack of Team Commitment and Buy-In to Decisions

This is the third installment in our 5-part Why Teams Fail series in which we cover common dysfunctions that cause a breakdown in team dynamics. In Part 1 and Part 2, we discussed the first two dysfunctions as identified by Patrick Lencioni in his book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. It starts with a lack of trust, which leads to a fear of conflict between the team members, and this brings us to the focus of this week’s story: How to Overcome Lack of Team Commitment and Buy-In to Decisions.

Ever notice how, when business decisions are made in a team meeting, not everyone seems to really buy-in to the decision? Maybe the discussion continues in smaller groups in the hallway after the meeting, as if the decision was never made. Maybe people approach the leader after the meeting one-on-one to keep the debate going. Sometimes an email thread is started by someone to continue debating something that was decided. Be honest, we have all done this.

This is because there is a lack of commitment in the team to decisions made in the meeting.

Commitment vs. Consensus

Commitment vs. Consensus

Just to be clear, commitment is not consensus. Team consensus sometimes seems like it’s always the goal of the meeting discussion. After all, isn’t it always better if everyone agrees? Nope. Driving for consensus invariably leads to disastrous decisions that nobody likes or agrees with, because it means someone, or everyone, is avoiding conflict. And, it’s the easy way out. It falls into the “go along to get along” situation in which people feel it’s just easier to give in than to risk the exposure of saying your piece. When someone in the meeting shrugs their shoulders, and says, “whatever,” all of your warning flags should go up. That person is not going to buy-in to whatever decision is made.

Let’s think about this a bit. It you take a group of intelligent people and put them in a room, what are the odds you can get them all to agree to anything? “What should we have for lunch?” Not everyone is going to agree that chicken teriyaki works, even if they do deliver. Given this, why would we make having everyone agree about something important the goal of the discussion? That can quickly become who can shout the loudest, be the most intimidating or simply wear everyone down. Team members will quickly revert back to the self-preservation model and just stop participating.

Consensus has its place. Legal juries require, in most cases, consensus to convict. Couples are always driving for consensus, because that maintains the peace at home. The U.S. Supreme Court, on the other hand, specifically does not require consensus. Everything would just end up in gridlock and a single Justice could jam up the works. I would love to be a fly on the wall in the room when the Supreme Court justices are debating a case. I suspect these are very passionate and heated debates where every justice says exactly what they think without worrying about the feelings of the others. When the debate is over, a decision is made and communicated. If the Supreme Court does not require consensus to decide arguably the most important things, why would we require it in a business meeting?

The Supreme Court, by the way, is an excellent example of a team that has overcome all of the dysfunctions we will be discussing in our 5-part Why Teams Fail series.

Disagree and Commit

Disagree and Commit

What we are wanting in a business setting is commitment, not consensus. Commitment is buy-in to a decision, specifically if you don’t agree with it. This is where it can get hard. In a group meeting, commitment is group buy-in to a decision, specifically when everyone does not agree. We’ve likely all heard the adage, “Disagree and commit.” This is where that applies.

But you may ask, why would I commit to something I didn’t agree with?

You will find that if the team has the trust we’ve addressed in previous articles, and they engaged in serious and passionate debate and everyone participated in the conversation, commitment to the ultimate decision becomes much easier.

Let Others Air Their Thoughts

Let the team air their thoughts

As a rule, humans are not driven by a desire to be right. Somehow, we know internally that we aren’t always right. Humans are, however, driven by a desire to be heard. And if, in the healthy business debate, you had a chance to really air your thoughts on the subject at hand — you were able to defend your position, even though others really didn’t agree with it, and you feel that everyone understood your position — committing to the final decision becomes much easier for you. If the team members feel that every available option and position has been aired, they are far more likely to embrace the final decision, even if it is contrary to what they think.

If, on the other hand, team members hang back and just remain out of the debate because of the many fears we have discussed in previous articles, their willingness to commit to the final decision is seriously impaired. Why would they commit to something that “those two people” decided’? “They are just idiots that wouldn’t have listened to me anyways, they always have their way,” the back hanger may think. We all know the arguments.

Can you imagine if the Supreme Court justices behaved this way?

So, if there isn’t any trust in the team and because of this lack of trust there isn’t a healthy conflict and debate about the issue at hand, team commitment to a decision is going to be tough. It all ties together.

How to Ensure the Team Commits to a Decision

How to Ensure the Team Commits to a Decision

How can you make sure the commitment to a decision exists? There are a few of things you, the team leader, can do to achieve this.

1. Mine for Conflict

First, mine for conflict. We’ve talked about this. Call out the people on the team who are hanging back or not participating in the discussion. For instance, you can say:

“John, I happen to know you have a different opinion, we need to hear it.”

“Simon, you haven’t said a word even though I know you have thoughts, you need to speak up.”

This kind of situation is where the trust issue is really felt. It takes a strong leader to call out team members like this, and it takes trust in the team for John and Simon to not feel personally attacked because they are being called out.

Make sure you have actually heard from everyone before making a final decision. After making the decision, make sure everyone understands the decision and how it affects them and their respective teams. Is everyone still on the same page? Remember, they don’t have to agree with the decision, just commit to it.

2. Clarify the Commitment

Second thing you have to do is wrap up the meeting with clarification about the commitment the team is making. “I know we don’t all agree, I appreciate the passionate debate, this is what I’ve decided after hearing from everyone” is a very strong way to wrap up a passionate debate. Write the decision down, it implies a certain finality that members will pick up on.

3. Require Cascading Communication

Last thing you want to do is require cascading communication. Require that everyone on the team must communicate the decision to their team (as appropriate of course) within 24 hours. This forces clarification of the decision. Do not let anyone go with “this is what they agreed, I don’t agree with it” to their team; this is a fatal behavior. Discuss this possibility at the end of your meeting, reminding everyone that they all need to be on the same page — even if they don’t completely agree with the final decision. If the team members know they will be held accountable for communicating correctly, they are far more likely to get it done right.

What to Do When the Debate is Over

What to do when the debate is over

There is another fatal behavior to be aware of. If you have followed these ideas so far and had a passionate debate about an issue, the hard rule for the team must be that once a decision is made, the debate is over.

Again, the Supreme Court is an excellent example of this.

One of the most destructive things a team can allow or enable is for the debate to continue after the meeting is over. (Someone trying to sway others to see it their way outside the group meeting.) It will destroy the trust in the team and really hamper further meaningful debates about anything. If members feel they can continue the argument afterwards, why would they participate in the debate to begin with?

Remember in my example from part 2 on why teams fail about the CFO who was just going to corner the CEO later with his thoughts about an issue? This is why that is so destructive, and why you, as the team leader, cannot allow it.

I’m not suggesting you have to take it this far, but I have fired an individual for doing exactly this. I can’t even remember what the decision was, only that it took us several hours of heated debate to get there. We were all relieved when I made a final decision. Then an email thread was started by a team member that reopened the entire debate, and the entire process was pretty much destroyed. I fired the person, and this never happened again. Drastic? Yes, but I did warn you that leadership and healthy team dynamics aren’t going to be easy.

If nothing has changed, the debate is over. Now certainly the decision is fair game if new meaningful information comes to light that the team wasn’t aware of at the time, but only with the whole team being involved. No hallway debates, please. No one-on-one meetings with the leader to try to change the decision.

Team Buy-in and Clarity

Team Buy-in and Clarity

Commitment requires buy-in and clarity. Buy-in and clarity are achieved through healthy and passionate debate within the team, and healthy passionate debate will only occur when there is trust in the team.

So, what’s wrong with a team member not committing to the decision? Who cares? After all, they didn’t agree with it. So what if they go back to their team with “Here’s what ‘they’ decided and I don’t agree with it.” Other than being extremely destructive behavior and pretty much wrecking the team trust, it leads to the fourth of Lencioni’s dysfunctions which we will discuss in part 4 on Why Teams Fail.