Consensus Is Less Useful Than You Think

Mar 17, 2023 2:01 pm

Happy Friday,

The weather here can't seem to make up its mind. One day we'll have 60-degree weather, and the next it won't get above 40. Our cars are full of various jackets and umbrellas to handle the variability for our kids since every day is so different.

I helped a client make history this past week by launching the first revenue-generating software product. It is pretty exciting for me, but there is a ton of work ahead, which brings me roughly to my little title.

Consensus is a funny little thing that lots of leaders crave, but I've found it to be less useful of an operating mode than many. When we want consensus, we typically want everyone to agree to something. As a leader, we want consensus because it means that people have agreed to something, and that helps us feel better about getting buy-in to whatever it was.

As an employee, we like consensus because it means we talked things through and we also all agreed. After all, nobody wants to be ignored or given a directive.

Or do we?

When we encourage consensus, something else also happens. Consensus can create an us-vs-them dynamic very quickly. Those who reach a consensus are favored, and those who do not are outcasts. You've likely seen this behavior in a company. Those who readily agree with the group tend to move along favorably with the group, and those who disagree tend to find themselves no longer invited.

Also, the act of gaining consensus is slow and requires a lot of energy. Sometimes people feel that all of these meetings to gain consensus are way more effort for the decision that is required. In fact, you've probably had a voice in your head yelling, "Just say what you want us to do," during another long consensus meeting.

In my experience, a consensus is a useful approach to things when I see a need to create a network of support. For example, if I'm starting an initiative that will require multiple groups, reaching a consensus is helpful because when those groups reach a consensus to help, they've also created a social contract with each other for it, and that network will be important.

Reaching a consensus is not useful, on the other hand, when that network is not needed, and the risk of deviation is not impactful. My favorite example that puzzles leadership all the time is when I build teams and I don't require consensus.

When I form teams, I ask them to be rather explicit about how they conduct themselves in various situations. Now, for most people, this would seem like reaching a consensus is required, but it isn't. Quite regularly, there will be people on the team who simply will not consent to the team's rules. No consensus will be made.

Is the team doomed? Absolutely not!

Most would try to coerce the group to agree in spite of the protest, but this is a mistake. It immediately poisons the team with the realization that they don't actually matter.

So I asked the group if they could live with the person who did not want to consent. I also asked the person who didn't consent if they could work with the team that did.

This simple shift allows the team to recognize differences and accept them. The only consensus they agree to is that they will work together, even if it isn't in the same way.

Why was this topic about consensus related to my client's story? I can assure you that breaking new ground didn't happen with consensus. Had we strived for consensus, we would've never done something new.