Teams and Disagreements

by Krishna on June 8, 2008

The common image that comes to mind when we talk about “teams” is a group of people that work jointly to achieve a particular objective. We think of charismatic leaders who take the team from vision to goal. Disagreements and arguments are often thought of in the context of dysfunctional teams, those that fail despite the talents of the individuals involved in the team.

But even the most successful teams are composed of individuals, often with widely varying backgrounds, ideas and opinions. Is the successful team therefore built on compromise? Do successful teams have no arguments within? Do team members relinquish their opinions and simply trust in the leader?

Let us try to classify teams on the basis of internal disagreements and the basis for the disagreements.

Team members
tend to agree
Team members
tend to disagree
Team members driven by
self-interest
A B
Team members driven by
team goal
C D

In Group A, team members, driven by self-interest, never disagree. Why would someone agree publicly to something that they privately disagree with? This would only happen if they would encounter harm by voicing their disagreement. An example would be a dictatorial leader, who treats disagreement as lack of loyalty, respect or patriotism. Or a group-think situation that anyone who presents an opposing thought is viewed as foolish, naive or ignorant. The physical and emotional risks involved in making an unpopular stand may make it wiser for an individual to keep silent.

Being different does not mean being correct. The majority opinion or the leader’s choice may be the right one. But no one is infallible. And so, in the cases where it is wrong, there is no alternative choice to fall back to. Too often, people do not even accept that failure has occurred and suppress those who report the bad news. Such a team structure is a disaster waiting to happen.

In Group B, there is much disagreement, but everyone is acting out of self-interest. This most commonly occurs in a divided legislative body (such as Congress) in the absence of strong and bipartisan leaders. Every politician is answerable to his or her constituency — they are sent to Congress or Parliament to argue for their voters. At the same time, they also have an obligation towards the nation. In the absence of a strong national consensus on a subject, elected politicians favor the position that would get them elected again, not one which benefits more people. We also see the same dynamic in bureaucracies where different groups argue for the position that would be most favorable to their department.

This situation does provide benefit to some people, and even people who do not benefit understand how the game is played and behave accordingly. In the end, almost everyone loses because no one failed to provide for the common benefit. Vast amounts of time and money would be spent before anyone recognizes the harm done.

In Group C, team members work towards a common goal and rarely voice any disagreement. Even though it is not harmful to them to voice their disagreement, they still agree with the leader and the group. The only possibility is that they believe that any contradicting thoughts they have are wrong or misguided. Instead they believe in the rightfulness of the leader or the group. For example, consider the CEO of a Fortune 500 company with a 30-year successful track record in a group with new recruits fresh out of college. Every word uttered by the executive would be taken as gospel by the group, even in areas that he or she may have little experience in or knowledge of.

When the group places too much belief in the leader, they can miss even obvious mistakes in decision making. Leaders have to actively step back and let subordinates take greater responsibility to avoid this trap. The problem with leading too much is that when the leader is gone or missing, the group ceases to function or make any decisions.

In Group D, the members of the group voice their disagreements openly, but they do not think of themselves. They want the group to succeed and they have the same goals. They disagree about strategies and tactics. So what happens? If they never reach agreement, they cannot function and hence may have to split into different groups, each using different methods to achieve the same goals. For example, in parliamentary systems, there will be different parties with similar stated objectives, but radically different economic policies to achieve them.

But a team comprising people with different opinions could also stay and work together. This situation could easily devolve into a Group B situation, where the reason for staying together is to win and share the spoils. But if that does not happen, how could a team survive and stay together even though there are internal disagreements?

One way for people to stay together is the knowledge that everyone is acting not selfishly, but for the common goal. That knowledge comes from common belief systems or from sacrifices made by the team members for one another or for the team. Teams bond when they go through emotional experiences together. However, the more diverse the members of group, the greater work that must be done by the leader to forge common bonds.

Secondly, having disagreements does not meet lack of decision making. Decisions should be made for pursuing a course of action (or inaction, as the case may be). But all decision-making should follow these important rules:

  1. Everyone agrees that each person in the team owns the decision. Hence, there will be no “I told you so” if a decision fails. If this is not done, the dissenters will wait for failure while the supporters will hide or spin any mistakes. With this rule in place, everyone works to make the decision a success and step in when a fellow team member needs help.
  2. Everyone agrees that the decision is the best that could be made in the present circumstances and considering all options. That means that future circumstances could possibly make the decision seems wrong with the benefit of hindsight. This rule helps avoid finger-pointing and wishful thinking when things don’t go as expected.
  3. Everyone agrees that the decision will be final, ending further discussions until new circumstances come about or new facts are uncovered. This avoids private discussions that may result in lower morale and possibly sabotage.

Decision making can be made in many different ways, but any process should not rely on a method that fails to bring all opinions to light. For example, using a simple majority to make a decision may be counter-productive even though everyone had a voice (“vote”), if the decision makers have not taken the time to understand the consequences of the decision. And decision-making does not necessarily mean a democratic process. It could be a manager who has extensive discussions with his team before accepting a minority opinion that has a greater resonance with facts.

People often confuse a successful team with a team that has achieved success. A successful team transcends the divisions and differences of its constituents. The results of its efforts are dependent on many factors, and so a successful team may not always meet its goals. But its ability to tolerate different views and adapt to changing circumstances provides it with a greater potential to achieve success in the long run.

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