I was recently speaking with a friend about some professional challenges he was facing. To the outside world everything seemed fine – he was achieving his KPIs, his team were working well and his customers were happy. But my friend could see trouble ahead with this well oiled machine. He just couldn’t identify the cause.

After some time I shifted the conversation to culture. I wanted to understand the way that the team operated and why. I wanted to know what worked and what didn’t – and also what happened when things go wrong (as they inevitably do with even the most harmonious teams). And suddenly the lights went on.

This team had spent a considerable amount of time “as a team”. They worked well with each other and often could second guess decisions that each could make. And while this had provided them cohesiveness over the years, it seemed to me, that they had fallen into the consensus trap – confusing alignment with consensus. There seemed to be no clarity around responsibility, accountability or even role.

During team meetings, the point of view of each person was canvassed and debated. Decision making unofficially required a consensual team view. This meant that a large proportion of collaborative time was spent reaching an agreed view and discussing the fine points of disagreement. Not only that … untolled hours before these meetings were devoted to lobbying particular view points and gaining support. The end result was a roaring sense of group think that had turned this high performing team inside out.

I turned to my friend and suggested that it’s time to kill the culture of consensus that had served them so well. Channelling Mike Myatt, I spoke of the role of leaders:

Great leaders intrinsically understand team building catalyzes collaboration, creates both disruptive and incremental innovation, facilitates a certainty of execution, and is one of the key foundational elements associated with creating a dynamic corporate culture. Consensus thinking undermines all of the aforementioned. Just as consensus is team building’s silent killer, it is also often the assassin of culture.

If consensus is the “assassin of culture,” our role as leaders is to combat it where and when we find it. This problem, I explained to my friend, would not be resolved until he was resolved to end it.

A few weeks later I met my friend for lunch. I was keen to understand whether there had been any changes – and what impact they had had. By the way that he walked into the restaurant, I knew that the situation had improved. “You just can’t lead by consensus”, he said to me as he sat down. Even small changes to the team format had dramatically changed the dynamics. The focus on culture – on alignment – but also on responsibility and accountability had freed the team to pursue action rather than consensus. And the weekly meetings were quickly transformed into much more vibrant forums. There was still work to do, but a bridge had been crossed – and all it took was a single decision.

Have you seen or experienced these types of turnarounds?

Nina Nets It Out: Culture is the great enabler of business – but without care and attention, culture too can drift, become unfocused and problematic. Leaders must constantly be on the lookout for shifts in the culture of teams (large and small) and proactively work to set the optimum environment for success. Be sure to look below the surface of even your high performing teams, you might be surprised to see what’s there.

path of life Cornelia Kopp via Compfight