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.

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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.

Lincoln vs. Douglas

We may often find ourselves in situations where we are on the opposite side of a particular position that is being advocated by someone else. At this point we have a choice to make. Do we speak up or keep quiet? Obviously it all depends upon the circumstances and whether or not a discussion is actually merited. I enjoy a good healthy debate but have learned that it’s not necessary to go to the mat every time someone is espousing a point of view that is different than my own. The bottom line – what is to be gained from engaging in such a discussion? Will I persuade the other person to change his or her mind? Are there others who might be listening that I want to influence? In many cases, I decide to forgo the debate when I’m reasonably certain that the other person is entrenched in his or her point of view and there is no one else around to influence.

Let’s assume that we do want to convince others to adopt our perspective on an issue. How we go about doing this will be a real test of our skill in communications and diplomacy. If you ever watch political debates pay close attention . . . and then do just the opposite of what the politicians do. Often they obfuscate, make ad hominem attacks, avoid the question and use emotional appeals. There is a much better way.

Stick to the facts. Utilizing a fact-based approach to construct our own arguments is both rational and appropriate. Of all the classes I took in college my hands-down favorite was Logic. Connecting the dots with logic supported by well-sourced data is powerful and persuasive. And my Logic professor always used to say that a clear indication that you are winning a logical argument was when the other party resorts to playing on emotions. In addition to supporting our own thesis with facts, we can also de-construct the opposing point of view in similar fashion.

Depersonalize. As we debate an issue it’s easy to become passionate about our position and allow things to get personal. Watching our words is critically important at this point. Consider the following statement. “I just don’t understand why you are being so hard-nosed with your position.” How do you suppose the other party is going to react? It would be easy to become defensive if you are on the receiving end of this barb. How does this sound? “Help me understand the ABC Company’s position.” The word “you” has been replaced with the ABC Company. And the statement avoids an inflammatory tone.

Be respectful. Above all, we should maintain a level of friendliness during our discussion. Being respectful of the other party is paramount. Belittling and mocking statements do us no favors. Others who may be listening will be turned off by this approach. We are better served by acknowledging that the opposing point of view has merit even if we disagree. For example, we might say, “John, I understand that you believe that we should invest more marketing dollars in print media and I’m sure that we would get results. On the other hand, four independent studies have shown that the ROI for an investment in social media is five times higher than with print media.” Here, we’ve been respectful of John and his position, and then de-constructed his argument with our own facts.

Debate is healthy and productive when engaged in a positive manner. Using facts, avoiding becoming personal and maintaining respect are the best ways to persuade others to accept and adopt the position that we advocate.

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.