I am constantly reminded that wise leaders involve their teams in making decisions that affect them. There is tremendous value in this. Simply examining all sides of an issue with the input of a diverse and talented team helps the leader make a fully informed decision. And, when the team has reached consensus on an issue, a motivated, energetic and committed workforce heads out on a path they feel they have chosen themselves.
Leaders sometimes state their intent to gain consensus on key issues but feel discouraged when considerable time is invested and the results fall short of expectations. Sometimes this happens because the principles, and the term “consensus” itself, are poorly understood.
Case in point: I recall a meeting many years ago that involved about 30 people who were, to the extreme, dedicated to achieving complete agreement on important issues. The issue I describe appears now to be quite trivial but, I must emphasize, it did not seem trivial to the participants at the time. The issue (are you ready?): “Should a popular and valued staff member be allowed to have her dog at work when policy clearly forbade it?” By the way, this was not a “working dog” but an ordinary pet.
Now, there was a “history” that had led to the policy in the first place and I won’t go into that. Also, the dogs of several staff present at the meeting had effectively been banned from the premises. On the other side were good arguments why this particular dog and this valued person should be granted exceptional status. The discussion lasted well over three hours while the moderator tried to get complete agreement from 30 people among several options: the policy stays and the dog goes, or; the policy goes and the dog stays, or; the policy stays and an exception made. In the end, fatigue spoke louder than reason. Complete agreement was signaled by way of a 30-0 vote. The final decision: uphold the policy with no exceptions but henceforth recognize the dog in question as “a cat” (there being no policy banning cats). I don’t recall the dog’s reaction.
Few people would consider this a good decision, or even a good process, but I think there are two important lessons in this tale.
The first is that, no matter how trivial an issue appears, it is very likely quite important to more than one person. People discussed this, heatedly at times, for three hours! Your handling of it will send a clear message about how you regard the values of those involved. Dismiss it at your peril.
The second is that consensus does not mean complete agreement. While many people might consider complete agreement to be a noble target, it is rarely achieved and can lead to bizarre outcomes. Some would argue that complete agreement may be a sign that the team lacks the necessary diversity of opinions and perspectives (and in the current example, “connection to reality”) to be really effective. So what do we strive for?
How about true consensus? Consensus is not unanimous agreement. I prefer to think of it as a process that involves all the people who are affected by the decision, and leads to a decision that all people can support. In consensus, the decision may not be my first choice, and I never lose face by being coerced into saying that it is. I just agree that:
• I have said my piece and I feel “heard”.
• It is the best solution for the team and I can live with it.
• I’ll try and make it work, rather than sabotage it.
Consensus is not a majority vote or an autocratic decision. It shouldn’t be a bargaining process, and it needn’t be unanimous. To set that expectation is unrealistic and counterproductive. Rather, consensus is a way to increase respect, build commitment and build deep understanding of the issues, the business and the team members themselves.