When Teams Can’t Decide

When cross-functional teams have trouble making decisions, leaders blame psychological factors like mistrust or poor communication. But the problem isn’t the team’s people; it’s the decision-making process. Each member has constituencies in the organization. So each vies for resources for favored projects—virtually guaranteeing an impasse. To break the impasse, the team leader makes a unilateral decision, leaving a majority of the team disgruntled and resentful of the “dictator.”

To improve your team’s decision-making process, Frisch recommends several tactics. For example, clearly articulate the outcome your team must achieve. When people understand the goal, they more readily agree on how to get there. And surface members’ functional preferences through pre-meeting surveys to identify areas of agreement and disagreement and to gauge the potential for deadlock.

These deceptively simple tactics position your team to prevent stalemates—instead of forcing you to be “dictator-by-default.”

Specify the Desired Outcome

Without clear desired outcomes, team members choose options based on unspoken, differing assumptions. This sets the stage for the dictator-by-default syndrome. To avoid the syndrome, articulate what you want the team to accomplish. Example:

A division of an industrial company was running out of manufacturing capacity for a product made in the U.S. The leadership team assumed the desired outcome was “Achieve the highest possible return on assets.” So they discussed shuttering a U.S. plant and building a plant in China, where costs were lower and raw materials closer. But the parent company’s desired outcome was “Minimize corporate overhead and maximize earnings.” The move to China would mean closing an additional facility that supplied materials to the U.S. plant, significantly lowering earnings. Once the division team understood the desired outcome, it could solve the capacity problem in a way that was consistent with the parent’s actual goals.

Provide a Range of Options for Achieving the Desired Outcome

Break alternatives into a broader range of options beyond “Accept the proposed plan,” “Reject the plan,” and “Defer the decision.”

Test Fences and Walls

When team members cite a presumed boundary (for example, a real or imagined corporate policy), ask “Is it a wall (it’s relatively immovable) or is it a fence (it can be moved)?” Example:

For a division of a global financial services provider, executives never considered expanding their offerings to include banking services. That’s because they thought corporate policy prohibited entry into banking. When the division head tested this assumption with her boss, she learned that the real concern was not to do anything that would bring new regulatory requirements (the wall). So the division developed strategic options that included several features of banking that avoided dealing with new regulations.

Surface Preferences Early

Survey members before meetings to identify their preferences and focus the subsequent discussion. Example:

A global credit card company was deciding where to invest in growth. Executive team members conducted a straw poll of countries under consideration. The process enabled them to quickly eliminate countries that attracted no votes. And it focused their subsequent discussion on the two regions where there was most agreement.

Assign Devil’s Advocates

Make thorough and dispassionate counterarguments an expected part of strategic deliberations. Assign devil’s advocates to make the case against each option. This depersonalizes the discussion and produces more nuanced strategy discussions.

The executive team is deliberating about a critical strategic choice, but no matter how much time and effort the team members expend, they cannot reach a satisfactory decision. Then comes that uncomfortable moment when all eyes turn to the CEO. The team waits for the boss to make the final call, yet when it’s made, few people like the decision. Blame, though unspoken, is plentiful. The CEO blames the executives for indecisiveness; they resent the CEO for acting like a dictator. If this sounds familiar, you’ve experienced what I call the dictator-by-default syndrome .

For decades this dynamic has been diagnosed as a problem of leadership or teamwork or both. To combat it, companies use team-building and communications exercises that teach executives how to have assertive conversations, give and receive feedback, and establish mutual trust. In doing so, they miss the real problem, which lies not with the people but with the process. This sort of impasse is inherent in the act of arriving at a collective preference on the basis of individual preferences. Once leadership teams understand that voting-system mathematics are the culprit, they can stop wasting time on irrelevant psychological exercises and instead adopt practical measures designed to break the impasse. These measures, proven effective in scores of strategy off-sites for companies of all sizes, enable teams to move beyond the blame cycle to a no-fault style of decision making.

The Importance of Delegation

The top priority for team managers is delegation. No matter how skilled you are, there’s only so much that you can achieve working on your own. With a team behind you, you can achieve so much more: that’s why it’s so important that you delegate effectively!

Successful delegation starts with matching people and tasks, so you first need to explain what your team’s role and goals are. A good way of doing this is to put together a team charter, which sets out the purpose of the team and how it will work. Not only does this help you get your team off to a great start, it can also be useful for bringing the team back on track if it’s veering off course.

Only then will you be in a position to think about the skills, experience and competencies within your team, and start matching people to tasks.

The Core Skills Needed to Manage Your Team

Motivating Your Team

Another key duty you have as a manager is to motivate team members.

Whatever approach you prefer to adopt, you also need to bear in mind that different people have different needs when it comes to motivation. Some individuals are highly self-motivated, while others will under-perform without managerial input.

Developing Your Team

Teams are made up of individuals who have different outlooks and abilities, and are at different stages of their careers. Some may find that the tasks you’ve allocated to them are challenging, and they may need support. Others may be “old hands” at what they’re doing, and may be looking for opportunities to stretch their skills. Either way, it’s your responsibility to develop all of your people.

Your skills in this aspect of management will define your long-term success as a manager. If you can help team members to become better at what they do, you’ll be a manager who people aspire to work for, and you’ll make a great contribution to your organization, too.

The most effective way of developing your people is to ensure that you give regular feedback to members of your team. Many of us are nervous of giving feedback, especially when it has to be negative. However, if you give and receive feedback regularly, everyone’s performance will improve.

Communicating and Working With Your Team – and With Others

Communication skills are essential for success in almost any role, but there are particular skills and techniques that you’ll use more as a manager than you did as a regular worker. These fall under two headings: communicating with team members, and communicating with people outside your team. We’ll look at each in turn.

Communicating With People in Your Team

As a team manager, you’re likely to be chairing regular sessions as well as one-off meetings. Meeting of all kinds, and regular ones in particular, are notorious for wasting people’s time, so it’s well worth mastering the skill of running effective meetings.

Many meetings include brainstorming sessions. As a team manager, you’ll often have to facilitate these, so you’ll need to be comfortable with doing this.

Active listening is another important skill for managers – and others – to master. When you’re in charge, it can be easy to think that you know what others are going to say, or that listening is less important, because you’ve thought of a solution anyway.

Don’t fall into this trap. Most good managers are active listeners: it helps them detect problems early (while they’re still easy to deal with), avoid costly misunderstandings, and build trust within their teams.

Communicating With People Outside Your Team

Your boss is probably the most important person you need to communicate with. Take time to understand fully what your boss wants from you and your team – if you know exactly what she likes, and how she prefers this to be delivered, you’ll be better able to meet with her approval.

Don’t be afraid to ask your boss to coach or mentor you: you can usually learn a lot from him, but he may not be proactive about offering this. If you’re approaching your boss for advice, make sure that you’ve thought things through as far as you can. Introduce the subject with a summary of your thinking, and then say where you need help.

Also, as a manager, part of your job is to look after your team and protect it from unreasonable pressure. Learn skills like assertiveness and win-win negotiation, so that you can either turn work away, or negotiate additional resources.

Another part of your job is to manage the way that your team interacts with other groups. Use stakeholder analysis to identify the groups that you need to deal with. Then talk to these people to find out what they want from you, and what they can do to help you.

Managing Discipline

However much you hope that you won’t have to do it, there comes a time in most managers’ careers when they have to discipline an employee. Discipline may be subtly different from basic feedback, because it doesn’t always relate specifically to the employee’s work. You can give feedback on their phone manner, for example, but handling problems with timekeeping or personal grooming can need a different approach.

Obvious breaches of the law or of company policy are easy to identify and deal with. But what of other situations? On one hand, you don’t want to seem petty. On the other hand, you can’t let things go that should be dealt with.

Use these rules-of-thumb to decide whether you need to take action. If the answer to any is yes, then you need to arrange a time to speak to the employee in private.

  1. Does the issue affect the quality of the employee’s deliverable to the client (internal or external)?A graphic designer regularly gets into work late, although he stays late to make up for this. Customers are sometimes frustrated by not being able to get through to him at the start of the day, particularly when he’s working on rush jobs.
  2. Does the issue adversely impact the cohesiveness of the team?Individual designers tend to work on their own projects, with few meetings between design team members, so cohesiveness is not impacted. However people are noticing his lack of punctuality, and other people’s timekeeping is beginning to slip.
  3. Does the issue unnecessarily undermine the interests of other individuals in the team?The designer sitting next to the latecomer is unhappy that she has to field calls from clients before he reaches the office, and is unable to give a firm answer to the question “When will he be in?”

In this situation, the design team manager decides to speak to the latecomer because of the impact on his co-worker. They agree that coming in to work late is not a problem (he has a long commute, with heavy traffic en route) but that he will commit to being in by 9.30 a.m. every day to reduce the number of calls his co-worker has to field, and also give her a fixed time to give clients. He will work late to make up time, and will take on a task she doesn’t like to make up for her extra phone handling.

When you are faced with a potential discipline issue, take time to gather information about the situation, decide what you’re going to do, and act. Discipline issues rarely go away of their own accord, and they usually get worse, often causing considerable resentment amongst other team members.