Shining a Light on Toxic Re-Trading

November 22, 2019
5 Minutes
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With those fateful words, the meeting ends on seemingly solid ground. Unfortunately, too often a team’s commitment begins to erode almost immediately after adjourning. In these scenarios, a corrosive force is hard at work, devastating teams and laying waste to even the most solid plans. It’s called re-trading, and it takes place when someone(s) revisits a settled decision with the intent to change plans after the fact. This post attempts to shine a light on the toxic team behavior and offer some thoughts for combating it. But first let’s take a step back and offer some context:

“Disagree and commit” is a management principle which states that individuals are allowed to disagree while a decision is being made, but that once a decision has been made, everybody must commit to it. According to Wikipedia, this principle has been attributed to such icons as Andy Grove, Scott McNealy, and Jeff Bezos. Whatever its true origin, it “pinpoints when it is useful to have conflict and disagreement (early states of decision-making, but not after the decision is made). It is also helpful in avoiding the consensus trap, in which a lack of consensus leads to inaction.” In general, this principle is useful in organizations that value different perspectives but have finite resources to pursue seemingly unlimited ideas (i.e. in most growing SaaS businesses). It works well, so long as people commit in good faith to a plan and then maintain that commitment even in the face of inevitable adversity. It fails miserably when people’s commitment wavers and they seek to revisit the original decision via a re-trade. The re-trade can present itself in any number of different forms, including:

  • The person who never liked, nor cynically ever had any intention of committing to the plan
  • The person who didn’t pay close enough attention to the detail, and now does not feel beholden
  • The person who does his / her own thing and doesn’t even realize they are deviating from plan
  • The person who believes that ever-changing circumstances justify repeatedly re-visiting the plan

Whatever the precise form, re-trading reflects an unhealthy team dynamic. Interestingly, re-trading rarely takes place within the context of an open setting (i.e. a leadership team meeting), but rather often in 1-on-1 conversations behind closed doors. This is a useless waste of time. It sows the seeds of mistrust (what are they whispering about in there?). It creates factions and unproductive conflict. Even worse, these discussions often spill over beyond the attendees of the original meeting. In this way, leadership team members can dangerously undermine their peers, which completely freaks out the broader team (no one’s happy when the “adults” bring “the kids” into their fight). Needless to say, if these whisper-campaigns gain traction, they can completely derail the original agreed-upon plans. Left unchecked, these side conversations can also have a debilitating long-term effect on future decisions. Specifically, if people believe that they can re-visit decisions after the fact without negative consequences, then they may be incented to simply lay-low during initial debates and surreptitiously seek to get their way later-on. In short, once re-trading becomes normalized, no future decision will ever be safe from the threat of a re-trade.

On the contrary, in his classic book “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team,” Patrick Lencioni offers a succinct description of how truly cohesive teams behave:

  1. They trust one another.
  2. They engage in unfiltered conflict around ideas.
  3. They commit to decisions and plans of action.
  4. They hold one another accountable for delivering against those plans.
  5. They focus on the achievement of collective results.

Lencioni’s model also offers insights regarding ways to combat the re-trade. As I often say, there is no cure-all for human behavior. But if re-trading blooms in darkness, then sunshine is the best disinfectant. Specifically, pre-emptively calling out the dangers of re-trading goes a long way toward helping teams arm themselves against it. Unlike Voldemort in the Harry Potter series (“He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named”), openly acknowledging the potential for re-trading raises people’s awareness of and vigilance against it. Naming and shaming this behavior can give team members language to identify and resist peers’ efforts to engage in after-action 1-on-1 gripe sessions (a central means to waging a re-trading initiative). It also allows leaders to establish criteria for when it is appropriate to re-open past decisions. Specifically, facts and circumstances do change over time. And, if the realities on the ground justify it, then decisions absolutely should be reconsidered by the team. By establishing this as the one reason to re-open prior decisions, leaders can set a high bar for when / how / why plans can openly be re-litigated. Finally, because an ounce of prevention truly is worth a pound of cure, Lencioni’s model offers good guidance on how to address the root cause of re-trading. Maniacal focus on building trust and embracing unfiltered conflict early-on in decision-making processes will always be the best way to avoid downstream re-trading and all its devastating effects.

So, we’re all in agreement, right? Great, let’s do it.


Are we speaking the same language? Let’s talk.

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