United We Fall

Perfect harmony is great for a choir, but should raise some doubts when wrestling with a difficult problem. A healthy culture encourages healthy dissent for great understanding and creativity.

“Dave isn’t a team player.”

That’s not what you want on your first performance evaluation in a new job, but that’s what I found myself staring at. It was feedback from a Project Leader I had enjoyed working with for three months.

My boss smiled and assured me everything was okay – very okay, in fact. He had gone back to the Project Leader and had the following exchange:

  • Is Dave respectful of all the team members at all times? “Yes.”
  • Does Dave listen carefully and understand others’ points of view? “Yes.”
  • Does Dave deliver high quality work on time? “Yes.”
  • So, why is Dave not a team player? “Because he doesn’t agree with our proposal.”

The High Cost of Unity

Many corporate cultures, particularly here in the Pacific Northwest, prize consensus. There is, however, a healthy consensus and an unhealthy consensus. Healthy consensus, complete support for the plan, is vital after the decision is final.

Burying concerns while the decision is still in process, however, is not healthy. This often results in second-rate or flat-out bad solutions coasting comfortably through approval, wasting capital and talents.

The pressure to be a “team player” can surface under many guises:

  • “That’s not the story we’re trying to tell. “
  • “You’re either on the bus or not… you need to get on board.”
  • “We’re already past that… just let it go”

Team leaders must guard themselves against strong inclinations to press for consensus over the pursuit of truth – great analysis needs dissenting opinions and open debate. Acknowledge minority opinions, their champions, and their rationales in the proposal material.

Executive Responsibility

As with most issues, executives set the tone and need to actively and visibly cherish healthy dissent:

  1. Don’t tell teams to go away and come back when they are unanimous! Praise teams (and particularly their leaders) when proposals give full and fair hearing to contrary opinions.
  2. Express skepticism when solidarity carries the day. A single, unified opinion rarely reflects our complex world.
  3. Actively draw out suppressed doubts by asking individuals for their two greatest concerns and/or their preferred course of action if the recommended course of action was not available

If you find that a single opinion is still shared by the whole team, you may just have a team woefully lacking perspectives (or imagination). Alfred Sloan, the former General Motors President and Chairman, once suspended a meeting with:

“Gentlemen, I take it that we are all in complete agreement on the decision here.

Then, I propose that we postpone further discussion to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about.”

© Dave Wittenberg


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  1. Pingback: The Consensus Curse | The CapEx Compass™

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