Building Consensus or Doing the Right Thing

“Ah consensus … the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies in search of something in which no one believes, but to which no one objects; the process of avoiding the very issues that have to be solved, merely because you cannot get agreement on the way ahead.  What great cause would have been fought and won under the banner ‘I stand for consensus’?”

Margret Thatcher

We live in an age of consensus.  Although communicating alternatives, building support, and taking cooperative action is certainly important for the success of any team or organization, going too far to the consensus extreme can lead to the adoption of the least beneficial alternative.   Prime Minister Thatcher summed it up well in the above quote: consensus leads us to the least offensive alternative for the most number of people. However, by minimizing the decisions offensiveness, are we maximizing the decision’s outcome?

In keeping with that question, several readers have asked me about how to deal with major decisions when consensus leads nowhere.   As the number of hard decisions has increased due to the economy’s weakening, leaders are being called upon more often to make complex and painful decisions that impact employees and themselves.   As human beings, we cherish the security of being joined in hard decisions by others.  Part of this predisposition arises out of a desire to share “blame” as well as to reduce the psychological burden of being responsible for the potentially negative outcomes of our decisions.  How many times have you heard a pressed leader respond that a decision was a “group decision” or the common satirical response of “don’t kill the messenger” when bad news solicits a negative reaction?

I worked with a group of leaders several months ago that considered consensus to be their collective downfall. They complained that consensus seemed like a perfect way to make hard decisions as a group, but the results did not match the expectation.  Most of the group agreed that their consensus process produced:

  • Failure to resolve the issue by stalling or agreeing not to decide;
  • Poor decisions being selected for the sake of not upsetting single process participants; and
  • Considerable time being committed to produce few realistic results.

As we discussed the results of their process and the results of their recent meetings, three core concerns came to light that related to the results of their efforts:

  • Input is not consensus
  • Method matters
  • Balance Consensus with outcome

Input is not Consensus

One of the most common misperceptions related to successfully building consensus is the idea that input always equates to utilization.  We want to have input in decision-making in our organizations, but we don’t want the support the outcome of the process unless it is our preferred outcome.   Several years ago, an employee in a focus group captured it this way: “if you ask me my opinion, then you should act on it.”  Basically, a consensus process by definition should be inclusive of the participant’s ideas, but with the understanding that the team will support the outcome at the end of the discussion.


Method Matters

How we organize and facilitate the consensus process impacts the quality of the experience and the result.  Consultants and practitioners have a variety of games and tools for organizing and guiding the consensus process.  Most advocate taking turns, preserving decorum, and calculating the best alternative by considering everyone’s viewpoint.  Although these basic components can work well, how they are assembled and utilized depends on the participants, culture, and history of the organization.  Make sure the method you select is well understood and matches your organization and the process participants.

Balance Consensus with Outcome

It is important not to lose sight of the goal: producing the most desirable outcome or one that minimizes cost and maximizes benefits.  Very rarely is the process more important than the outcome.  On a regular basis, I work with organizations that have a well-documented and inclusive consensus process.  However, the overall performance of their organization is poor at best.   These organizations do a great job at making people feel part of a team, but a poor job of realizing other major goals.  So, the outcome should be one of the primary measures when reviewing how we perform.

A successful organization finds the balance between facilitating consensus and ensuring that what needs to be done is done.

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