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Consensus in Teamwork and Team Building


By Joel Shapiro

Team building is not about agreement 

The biggest mistake people make when thinking about teamwork, collaboration, or team building is to assume that it’s all about agreement. Not true. Solid teamwork is not about always being in agreement. It’s about building enough trust and respect that we want to hear each other out even when we disagree.

This is not a debate

Teamwork is not a debate. It’s all about collaboration.

In high school debating (and cheap politics), you look for the weakest link in a person’s argument and then attack that weakness to discredit your opponent and win the argument. That has nothing to do with business. Team building and teamwork in business are totally different. The goal in business is not to win the argument, and certainly not to turn your colleagues into opponents, but to work together to do the right thing for the organization.

Discussions can get heated, but on good teams the discussion never turns personal. We take out our anger on the problem, not on our colleagues. The goal is not to win arguments but to make good decisions for the organization and its stakeholders. Employees represent the stakeholders (employees, owners, customers…) and have to think beyond their own narrow interests and turfs. 


Good listening within a team is crucial. Some key aspects of listening as a part of a team…

  • giving everyone opportunities to contribute;
  • hearing everyone out;
  • helping each other make their argument as strong as possible;
  • finally, assessing if the idea is the best course of action, and failing that, if any of its components can be captured and used in the discussion moving forward. 


It often happens that someone still disagrees even after the decision is made. Here is a helpful team rule that promotes team building and pre-empts conflict in those situations: once a decision is made, everyone must support the decision, and do so until sufficient evidence is brought forward to bring about a new decision. There is no reason you cannot give people several chances to get the team to change its mind—as long as they are bringing new information forward and not merely rehashing the same old arguments. But until a new decision is made, we can expect that everyone will support the current course of action.


Consensus is not the goal; it is not an end unto itself. However, it is usually very useful in greasing the wheels of understanding, engagement, alignment, execution, and loyalty. To be clear, consensus is not about group-think or bulldozing diverse views. It works best in the context of leveraging team diversity, bringing out the best in everyone, and leveraging the skills and ideas of all team members.

“Consensus decision-making is a group decision-making process that seeks the consent of all participants and is defined as the general agreement or group solidarity of belief or sentiment. It has its origin in the Latin word cōnsēnsus (agreement), which is from cōnsentiō meaning literally feel together.” (Wikipedia) We don’t talk a lot about feelings in our culture, and certainly not in the workplace, but consider the stakes. That “feeling together” is absolutely related to sympathy and empathy, trust and respect, appreciation and loyalty. Can you image a team without these things? Not a happy, productive, or sustainable team that’s for sure – they are required for team building. Nevertheless, even without full consensus, team members can experience the same powerful feelings if the team process is human, respectful, engaging, and participatory.

Consensus stresses the cooperative development of a decision and the active search for common ground. Conflict is encouraged, supported, and resolved cooperatively with respect, non-violence, and creativity. In consensus, only one proposal is considered at a time. Everyone works together to make it the best possible decision of the group. Any concerns are raised and resolved, sometimes one by one, until all voices are heard. (Source unknown; edited by JBS)

“Team training has to help people understand that consensus decision making means people might, even after exhaustive discussion, still have different opinions about the best solution to a problem (such that a vote on options would not be unanimous). In spite of those differences, everyone is willing to get behind one option to do everything they can to make it work. Paramount in this communication phase is that team leaders must create a safe environment, where people can say whatever it is that needs to be said, with no fear of reprisal. Leaders must learn the difference between a team member expressing a feeling or opinion that is divergent from that expressed by others and a team member expressing a refusal to support the team’s decision.” (Blanchard, Caralos, and Randolph, The Three Keys to Empowerment)

Individual and team

“In a controversy, the instant we feel anger we have already ceased striving for the truth and have begun striving for ourselves.” (Buddha)

To riff on the Buddha, it is not about your ego or any narcissistic desire to win, but about the success of your colleagues, team, and organization—and its stakeholders. Think about it. If you lead your teams in this way you will develop an extremely loyal following and do a much better job of building leaders of teams and teams of leaders in your wake. Engaged employees feel more trusted and respected, and are more productive, loyal, and open to new ideas.

Forget the clichés. There is an “I” in both collaboration and community. Bring yourself to the meeting. They need you—your unique experience and perspective. And it’s OK to take care of yourself and your needs; just don’t make it all about you. Show up to help your team and organization succeed. Find that balance between individual and team needs, between your turf and the long-term interests of the organization. We do this every day when we search for an appropriate balance between corporate profits and the needs of your key stakeholder groups. One of my passions: helping organizations find the perfect blend of humanity and business performance.

Copyright © 2016 Joel Shapiro, Ph.D., all rights reserved.


About the Author

Joel Shapiro is a leadership educator and culture guru with Incrementa Consulting in Calgary, Canada. Joel is passionate about developing leadership capacity, making employees part of the solution, and finding the perfect blend of humanity and business performance. You can read more of Joel’s thoughts on the Incrementa website and on Twitter.

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