by Peter Grazier
Originally published on teambuildersplus.com on November 23, 2003
Recently I have been engaged in an Internet discussion with some people about the difficulties in reaching a team consensus. It seems that most teams will struggle with this once in a while. Some of the people felt that one reason we fail to reach a consensus is that much of the discussion is based on opinions rather than facts. It’s much easier to express an opinion than to do the work associated with uncovering facts. Opinions are important in shaping how we feel about something, but facts will help us move to closure more quickly because they leave less room for dispute. Opinions are also shaped by our values, the acquired beliefs we hold about our world. Our values tell us what’s “right,” “normal,” and “good.” However, these are usually open to interpretation.
For example, one youngster may have had a baseball coach that he admired who believed that “it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game that counts. “
Another youngster may have had a coach who believed “Winning isn’t everything…it’s the only thing!”
If these two youngsters internalize these two different beliefs, then many of the decisions they make later will be shaped by these beliefs. The first youngster may “play the game” with a sense of ethical behavior and fairness. The second youngster may be driven to win at any cost. The point is not to debate, which is better in this example, but simply to show that very different and distinct beliefs may be easily acquired by people that then serve as flashpoints during discussions later in life.
Fast-forward these youngsters to a work setting today where they may find themselves on the same team. If they find themselves trying to come to a consensus on an issue that incorporates these values, they will have difficulty reaching an easy consensus. They may continually argue on “how the game” should be played.
As part of our discussion group, Dr. Harry Bury of Baldwin Wallace College in Berea, Ohio, takes a larger view. He says that people will usually agree that much of what they say is simply their opinion. But once something becomes important, all of the sudden, their opinion becomes “the truth.” This discussion becomes more complex when one considers the psychological implications of discussions, which are simply human interactions.
When we are engaged in a discussion, our egos are nourished when others are in agreement with us. But when we are challenged to support what we are saying or if someone outright disputes our statement, we tend to go into a defensive posture. Have you ever argued a point you weren’t totally sure of, simply because you made it? We all have.
What To Do When Values Cloud The Picture
Define the process.
Many values-based blockages to reaching consensus can be reduced or eliminated by up-front knowledge. Teams should talk about how they will make decisions and what they will do when blockages occur. Write down a process or some ground rules for handling these situations.
Have everyone on the team learn more about values and beliefs. Exercises that dip into one’s belief system are valuable training tools. Simple exercises can demonstrate, for example, that each person on the team has different views of the world. As these views are discussed, team members begin to see that thoughts that differ from their own are not necessarily wrong, just different. And this, in no small way, becomes a revelation; because from that point on, members will think first to consider the other point of view before deciding to argue ad nauseam. If they fully understand that there are truly other “right” points of view, then reaching consensus is greatly simplified.
The subject of reaching consensus is broad indeed. Since it is an activity that we will continue to apply as collaboration and teams grow in the workplace, I would like to add your thoughts about what you see that works…or doesn’t work when trying to reach consensus.