Democracy in teams doesn't fix everything

Democracy in teams doesn't fix everything


If you ask your team to change a practice, and you survey them for their agreement, don't presume that getting a majority is enough. 
It's the easy path to assume that people will always respect the majority viewpoint. The assumption being that a person's choice is purely driven by logic. That's not how thinking, feeling humans work.

So how do you execute when you don't have consensus? 

In reality, when you're leading a team, and when making a change to their world, you're not asking for permission; you're responsible for this team and can make the change if you wish. You're asking for whether their current state of mind sees the benefits that the change would bring. If not, you must look into why with listening and understanding. Then you either help change them, change your change or more likely a little of both. 

Don't make the change until you have everyone on board or are prepared to accept the side effects of moving forward without unanimity.


This is especially hard to face when you come from a realm like software development, a deterministic world where once you understand a system's behaviour it's unlikely to change.
The 'system' of your team is not like that. It's organic, messy and difficult to predict. You have to be comfortable with uncertainty and with having to continually measure where people are and how they are feeling.


When you interact with a person in your team you're in the shallows of a swamp of complexity.
To expect that everyone in your team, however small or large, is going to have the same point of view on something is unrealistic. 
You're going to have to get messy, wade into the complexity and start digging around in the depths of it to find it's roots.

If you feel empathy for people this can cause a problem: Sometimes you wade so deep into your conversation that you lose your connection to the dry land of objectivity. 
Your vision of the issue becomes their vision and you find yourself bouncing around between the extremes of opinion within the team. 

Raising my hand, I'm that person. I have found a simple way to avoid it while maintaining my empathic response: Never undertake to do something when I'm in the conversation, simply take the things you find, thank the team member and let them know you'll include their opinions in your thinking. Then I take some time away to reset myself, remember the goal and be objective with the data.


Start by listening. Management and leadership are often said to be 'situational', this is a jargon word for 'make it up as you go long by responding to a specific persons preference for feedback'.

And that's OK. Start with a question about the specific issue at hand, like "Tell me how you feel about change X?". Listen and gently direct them towards the 'why' for their feelings. Steer them towards considering other viewpoints. Encourage them when they exhibit self-awareness.

You can't change their mind for them, people don't like that very much. You often find that their negative feelings about your change are nothing to do with the change itself, and are pinned to a previous change, another person etc... in which case you've got a fairly simple job of separating your change from the other concern. If they object to your change specifically then you may be able to reassure with more information.

Maybe they have a show-stopping objection, in which case be glad you took the time to find out :).

So, is this a foolproof way to get everyone to agree to everything?
No, of course not. It might turn out you're wrong in wanting to make the change. 
On the other hand, perhaps the person is not going to get to where you need them without a lot more work on your part.


This roughly translates as "the amount of care".
You need to consider how much care you can invest for the result you need.

Be prepared that to make the call that you've spent the care you can give trying to bring someone round and proceed anyway, knowing that you're going to have some work ahead of you dealing with the fallout of making the change without everyone being on board.

You're a people manager, after all, and it's these situations when we actually earn the money we're paid.


  • Teams are not democracies - unanimity is preferable. 
  • Teams are not state machines - don't presume what's good today is good tomorrow.
  • Teams are the UI for a complex universe - each member's life touches upon countless other lives, events and happenings.
  • Find out who didn't agree - work with them to change their own mind or understand why they don’t want to.
  • Consider amending your change based on their feedback. 
  • Work honestly to get each persons engagement. 
  • Be ready for well-prepared defences - not everyone can be moved easily, consider how much effort you need to expend versus the fallout of moving ahead.

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Self-awareness during times of change

Self-awareness during times of change