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Thoughts from the Field - Issue #2 - Team Commitment and Faux Collaboration

By Russ Sabia - July 2010


Team Commitment and Faux Collaboration

In the movie Up In the Air, George Clooney's boss calls his team of “hired corporate assassins” into a room and announces a big change in the way they do business. Reps will no longer travel the country to fire people face-to-face, but rather they’ll do their dirty work remotely via web cams. Clooney and his colleagues leave that meeting feeling demoralized and resentful. And as with many important executive decisions made without team input, trouble ensues.

This Hollywood example of top-down decision making creates great drama on screen, but there is an equally dangerous, more subtle form of no-involvement decision making that I call “faux collaboration” that takes place within organizations. Faux collaboration is where leaders invite colleagues to engage in decision making, but ultimately force their own ideas in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. This can derail commitment and morale just as effectively as Clooney’s boss deflated his team.

Faux Collaboration in Action

I once worked with an executive, let’s call her Christine, who had already made a key organizational decision but presented the idea to her team as newly formed and “up for discussion” at an offsite. Each time team members made suggestions or raised concerns she got defensive and refuted their ideas. It did not take long for the team to realize that this was just a charade of collaboration - and they ultimately gave up trying. Sure enough, Christine ended the meeting without acknowledging the team’s input and announced they would stick with her original plan.

Team members left the meeting publicly agreeing to support the plan, but they were resentful and cynical, venting privately to each other, “She didn’t really want our opinions.”

Nine months later, Christine was baffled as to why the plan still had not gained traction in the organization.

Getting Real Buy-In

Here at The Table Group we often say that people need to “weigh-in” so that they “buy-in.” But inviting discussion with no intention of using it is disingenuous, and people are quick to see it for what it is.

To be clear, people don’t need to “get their way” to be highly committed. What they need is a decision process that responds to these three basic human needs:

  • To be valued and respected
  • To have their ideas taken seriously
  • To understand the rationale behind decisions

Christine would have gained much higher commitment from her team had she applied two basic principles I encourage clients to use to foster true commitment:

Participation. Engaging people in open and unfiltered discussion about each other’s ideas not only sharpens the team’s thinking and builds collective wisdom, it also develops commitment because it satisfies people’s need to have their opinions heard and considered in decisions–even if their point of view is ultimately rejected. Christine invited participation, but the team quickly learned that she really did not want candor.
Explanation. When people participate in a decision process, they understand through their involvement “why” a decision was made and therefore tend to be more committed even if they don’t get their way. When a collaborative decision is not possible or appropriate, smart leaders take the time to fully explain why a decision was made - and respond to team members’ questions and concerns.
Explanation helps builds commitment by helping people fully understand the rationale behind a decision. It also helps build confidence that managers have genuinely considered all viewpoints and have made a decision that is objective and in the best interests of the organization. Over time, that builds trust in a manager’s judgment and intentions. Christine failed on most accounts here.

Christine had set her team up to make a collaborative decision when she really intended to move ahead with her own plan. This faux collaboration resulted in little more than a kind of reluctant compliance from her team that was accompanied by cynicism, resignation, and resentment - which ultimately undermined results.

Gaining Commitment When Decisions Can’t be Collaborative

To be fair, in real life many decisions cannot (and should not) be made collaboratively. Even so, the two principles of developing commitment, participation and explanation, still apply.

There will be times when leaders need to employ the following decision-making strategies:

Make decisions alone. In instances where a decision is already made by the leader (or handed down from a higher level), commitment can still be built by ensuring that the team has an opportunity to fully understand the reasons behind the decision (explanation) and to ask questions so that their concerns and questions are addressed (participation). People may not be entirely happy with the decision, but they will support it because there was integrity in the process.
Make a decision after gathering input from the team. Here the leader informs the group upfront that s/he will ultimately be making the decision, but wants the team’s input first. The leader then provides context, clarifies the issue and invites open dialog (participation). At the end of the discussion, the leader provides closure on when s/he will make the final decision - and then thoroughly explains the reasons behind it once it is made, taking care to address concerns raised by the group (explanation).

Whichever way a leader makes his or her decision (collectively, alone, or after gathering input) it’s best to clarify how the decision will be made up front, so that the team can participate with appropriate expectations.

Don't leave your team’s commitment to business decisions “up in the air.” By actively encouraging passionate, unfiltered debate and by ensuring that people get a full explanation of the rationale behind decisions once they are made, you can build extraordinary levels of commitment that help ensure your strategies get off the ground and succeed.