Just Say No to Consensus

Here’s a common scenario that is played out every day in conference rooms across the country. Devin is an entrepreneur who has assembled an executive team that consists of the COO, CFO, CTO, VP of Sales and Marketing, and VP of Product Development. The group meets weekly and the discussions are relatively polite and collegial. Devin works hard to avoid conflict and encourages the group to reach a consensus for decisions that need to be made. He believes that this approach has helped build a strong and positive culture for his organization. Unfortunately Devin is totally wrong!

There is a time and a place for consensus building, but it’s not right in Devin’s scenario. Instead, what Devin should be seeking is a healthy and robust debate where different arguments are vigorously presented. Then, once everything is on the table and all of the questions have been answered, Devin needs to make a decision. It’s up to him to decide what course of action will be taken. Too often, entrepreneurs are overly concerned about “keeping the peace” among team members. They are allergic to anything that might be perceived as “conflict.”

The problem with encouraging consensus building is that it also encourages a tendency to go along to get along. Author and management consultant Patrick Lencioni calls this “artificial harmony.” A strong organization needs a wide and diverse range of ideas to move forward. The first step is to discard the notion that conflict and disagreement are bad things. I believe that conflict and disagreement can be uplifting and beneficial – IF handled properly. For this to happen, team members must trust each other completely. This means trusting that what is said will remain confidential when required. This means trusting that no one is going to engage in personal attacks. It means trusting that backstabbing and triangulation are out of the question. It’s important to understand that establishing trust won’t happen overnight. It can take weeks or even months for full trust to develop.

Once trust has eventually been established, the leader must set the ground rules for engagement. This likely means that a protocol will be created for exchanging ideas. It likely means that all members of the team will be expected to contribute and participate. It means that debate and disagreement will be encouraged. And it means that everyone agrees to buy-in to the process.

So how does productive debate and disagreement occur? Each member of the team should present his or her arguments based in fact. The entrepreneur should allow for a free-flowing discussion but be prepared to call foul if the discussion veers off course into the area of personal conflict. Strong-willed team members should be encouraged to make an impassioned case for their positions. All team members should listen without interruption. These discussions may be intense – that’s OK as long as participants do not feel as though they are being personally attacked or their ideas denigrated. The lack of intensity during this process could be a signal that “artificial harmony” exists.

When the conversation has concluded, the entrepreneur has to step up and show real leadership. This means processing the various facts that have been presented and making a decision accordingly. Sometimes these decisions are extremely difficult – and that’s a very good thing. It means that the debate was compelling and strong arguments were made all the way around. It’s possible that the discussion will result in the need for additional information. But eventually when all of the facts are in and all of the points have been made, a final decision must be made. Ceding such a decision to a “committee” for consensus is not a display of leadership. The entrepreneur must explain the rationale behind the final decision and make certain that everyone feels that what they offered was sufficiently considered. Ultimately, everyone on the team must get on board and fully support the final decision. That doesn’t mean they have to fully agree with it – but they must be totally supportive. If a team member is not supportive, considerable damage can be done to the culture and to the process for making future decisions.

Great entrepreneurial leaders know how to foster healthy debate among team members and then make the final decision. A great team does not need to function with consensus, but does need to respect and support the final decision.

You can also listen to a weekly audio podcast of my blog. What you hear will be different than what you read in this blog. Subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also click on this link – Click here to listen to Audio Episode 10 – Urgently Patient.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

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