Essentials of Team Performance: Commitment

How do you judge whether or not a team is performing at a high level? Ultimately, team performance is often judged by the recommendations they make and by the decisions that they reach. This includes the small steps and little decisions that a team carries out during its journey, and the large, significant decisions that move big projects and important initiatives forward.

Team Performance Essential 1: Successful Team Decisions Require Commitment From All

In the long run, no decision will succeed if there is not strong commitment from all of the team members. “Commitment” is one of the core elements of Patrick Lencioni’s Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team™ program — and conversely, one of the core elements lacking in his Five Dysfunctions of a Team.

What do we mean when we call for commitment?

First here’s what “commitment” is not. We’re not using the term commitment in the conventional sense. Most people think of commitment as a pledge to do something in the future — “I’m going to dedicate myself to work really hard and put in a lot of extra effort to get this project completed.” Or it’s the expression of an obligation, or being emotionally compelled by something — “I am really excited about this new direction for our company, and I’m devoted to seeing it implemented throughout our culture.”

For our discussion, “commitment” is clear-cut, complete, and emphatic acceptance and support — from each and every member of the team — of the recommendations and decisions made by the team. To achieve high team performance, commitment means that team members acknowledge and champion the recommendations and the decisions made.

This commitment is necessary even if you advocate an opposing or alternative decision during team debate and discussion. This commitment is necessary even if you still think your, or some other, proposal or solution is the best one! It may sound a bit extreme, but the reality is that a team can only perform at its highest level when every team member fully agrees to and endorses the decision of the team. Each team member needs to be prepared to stand by the team decision.

So, for example, if your team has been assigned to determine the site of the company’s next major distribution center, and it decides that Omaha is the best location, you must buy in to and support that decision — and work hard to make it succeed — even if you argued passionately for Kansas City during the team’s deliberations… In fact, even if you still think Kansas City is the best choice.

The ability to do this in a genuine, authentic way is based on the first two behaviors of high team performance: vulnerability-based trust and healthy conflict. The resulting commitment allows your team to achieve results at a high level.

Team Performance Essential 2: Commitment is NOT Based on Consensus!

We feel compelled here to make a comment about the way decisions should be made — and are made — for high team performance. Commitment consists of the team choosing the best course of action possible and getting behind the decision whole-heartedly. But, according to Arden Coaching president Maren Perry, there’s a different role for the team leader than there is for team members.

“It is the team leader’s job to make the final decision! As a leader, that IS your job: to make those hard calls,” said Perry. “Leaders should acknowledge the importance of all the opinions for and against, all the alternatives offered, and all the debate that followed and that led to their decision. The leader needs to let their team know that the decision is based on the rich debate and discussion that occurred.”

Further, Perry adds that “In coming to a decision, the leader’s job is also to make sure that everyone has said everything they have to say; that they get all opinions on the table, and that everyone has expressed why they think something is a great idea or a flawed idea — and in a trusting, open, safe environment. But the team leader ultimately decides — and the decision should be decisive, with no room for waffling.”

The role of the team member is different. Commitment for them is based on the willingness of each team participant to stand behind the decision that the team leader has made. This means that team members do not continue to fight for their own opinion and do not continue to disagree with the decision behind the scenes… “Well, the team decided to recommend building the distribution center in Omaha, but I don’t think its going to work very well. I thought that the Kansas City metro area made more sense — and so did three other team members…” This behavior will weaken a team, make it less productive, and erode trust. It must be treated as unacceptable.

Having the final say in decision-making can be extremely uncomfortable for the team leader! And many of us have come to believe (or been trained to believe) that a “great” team either takes a vote or reaches a consensus and then makes the decision on that basis. It’s also a lot easier — most of us want to make people happy and avoid awkward and unpleasant disagreements.

However, consensus creates a false sense of agreement. The effect of trying to accommodate differing points of view results in poor team decisions and recommendations. Perry offers the example of a team at an ice cream company tasked to decide what new ice cream flavor will be brought to the market. “One team member loves blackberry. Another is a huge fan of buttered almond. Someone wants cookie dough. Yet another prefers a seasonal peppermint swirl. With consensus,” said Perry, “The team attempts to satisfy everyone — and no one is forced to reflect on, or reconsider, their point-of-view. The consensus result? Blackberry-Buttered Almond-Cookie Dough-Peppermint Swirl. Not very appetizing!”

“It’s a simple example,” notes Perry, “But this is what consensus typically does to team decision-making. True commitment means that each flavor option and combination is considered carefully and fully by the team. Then the best flavor is chosen by the leader and all team members commit to that decision. The outcome is hugely different.”

Or, perhaps worse, consensus builders never get around to making a decision at all. There’s an endless discussion. Topics get beaten into the ground. And then, the work is “overtaken by events” — things change and the window of opportunity is lost. The team’s work no longer matters.

And in a consensus scenario, is everyone really very happy? Probably not. Most people want to be working under a level of effective, responsive team performance. Most people want to work with winners.

Team Performance Essential 3: From Trust and Healthy Debate to Buy-In 

Successful commitment is not possible without first achieving a high level of vulnerability-based trust. According to Lencioni, vulnerability-based trust requires that every team participant be as open and honest with each other as possible, making themselves “vulnerable” to each other.

When all team members are open and honest with each other in this manner, the team creates a safe environment to:

  • Acknowledge that you don’t know the answer to a question
  • Confess that you made a mistake or an error
  • Ask for help with something — “I’m not familiar with this analytical technique; can you help me through it?
  • Sincerely apologize for saying something that was unfair
  • Offer genuine, constructive feedback
  • Explain why you think one person’s viewpoint has more merit than someone else’s

With vulnerability-based trust, open debate, or “healthy conflict” is possible.

“Healthy conflict” is open, productive debate — the ability to discuss ideas, issues, potential actions, proposals and recommendations. Healthy conflict moves the team forward in the direction of its goals. 

Successful teams get people to “weigh in to buy in.” If the team is built on vulnerability-based trust and healthy conflict, every team member will feel comfortable to enthusiastically weigh in — suggest ideas, express their point of view, ask questions, talk-through alternatives, and advocate for and against proposed solutions. And, as we mentioned earlier, it is the leader’s job to assure that everyone has said everything they have to say and that all opinions are on the table.

When team members weigh in, it becomes much easier for them to buy in to the team’s final decision — fully committing. Team members will find it more natural to demonstrate commitment because they’ve already been an essential part of the process. They understand the decision’s evolution and reasoning, and they genuinely feel that their contributions have been appreciated and valued.

This may sound tough, but if a team member cannot buy in… cannot commit, they need to leave the team. A person can’t be on the team if they’re not committed to the decision that everyone else has committed to. Ultimately, their behaviors and work will become counter-productive to team performance and, frankly, they will themselves be extremely unhappy.

Team Performance Essential 4: Discuss Commitment at the Beginning of a Team’s Work 

Make the importance of commitment clear when the team is first organized and begins its work. Discuss what it means. Setting expectations upfront will make the journey more enjoyable and productive for all team members. These “rules of engagement” help establish how a team will get their work done. Rules include operating rules such as meeting length and attendance expectations, and work product rules like understanding how decisions will be made and the ways in which work will be shared.

For Higher Team Performance, Take the Next Step

Arden Coaching is an authorized partner of The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team™ program. Based on Patrick Lencioni’s Five Behaviors model, The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team™ program is a proven set of assessment and team-building tools that has become the most widely used process for effective team development globally. To learn more about developing team performance, executive coaching, and leadership development, contact Arden Coaching at [email protected] or 646.684.3777.