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.

Zorro

Once upon a time there was a man who rode a horse, wore a mask and brandished a rapier. He was dedicated to helping the downtrodden and fiercely protected those upon whom bad men preyed. His name was Zorro! The legend of Zorro dates back to 1919 and was a movie and television show. I have fond childhood memories of this dashing figure – he was a fictional hero to many in my generation. Why? Because he stood up for his beliefs. What do you believe in more strongly than anything else? Have you discovered how you want to express this belief? Everyone should be Zorro at least once in their life and stand up for something in which they believe.

We don’t have to be radicals to stand up for that which we believe. It’s not necessary to march in a picket line or participate in a demonstration to accomplish this. The key is finding a productive and positive way to be a modern day Zorro. We start with truly understanding ourselves and our core values. What do we really care about? Why is this important?

I submit that there are three parts to discovering and acting upon that for which we want to take a stand. The first part is fact-based. Perhaps we have strong beliefs about the U.S. Constitution. Or maybe it’s the environment, the sick or the poor. It might involve entrepreneurship, politics, animals – the list goes on. Whatever it is, we need to do extensive research to develop our position. This fact-gathering process will help shape our beliefs in an intelligent manner. And we’re more likely to persuade others to understand and respect our beliefs if we can present a thoughtful fact pattern in support.

The second part in becoming Zorro involves emotional intelligence. It’s the fire and the passion that we have when we are in the belief-zone. But it goes a step beyond and allows us to manage our passion and emotions in a constructive manner. We use our emotional intelligence to maintain quiet strength and conviction, and thus we have “emotion for” our beliefs without becoming “emotional.” When we become emotional, we risk our credibility if others perceive that we are excessive in this regard. To persuade others to support our position, we must find just the right balance between facts and emotions. If there is too much emphasis on facts, others may not see our passion and are unconvinced. If there is too much emphasis on emotion, others may discount our position in similar fashion.

The third and final part in becoming Zorro focuses on how we take action. This requires planning and starts with determining what form of action will have the greatest positive impact on the largest number of people. Obviously we must scale our action plan to fit the resources we have available – time, treasure and talent. My wife and I are passionate about educating young people to become teachers. In 1999 we created a scholarship program for high school students that want to attend our alma mater and enter the education field. Not only have we made a serious financial commitment, but we also make it a point to get to know each one of our scholarship awardees and his or her parents. We also maintain contact during their college years and even beyond.

One of the factors in determining our action plan was the fact that a teacher touches and shapes the lives of many young people. When we did the math, we realized that over a period of many years we could make a difference in the lives of thousands of young people by helping educate teachers. One hundred teachers in the classroom for 20-years with a class size of 20 will educate approximately 40,000 children. After understanding the exponential nature of the numbers, it was a no-brainer to fund our scholarship program.

We should all take the opportunity to be Zorro at least once in our lives. By crystallizing our beliefs through facts, emotion and action, we can make the world a better place.

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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Grrrr!

I know someone who always seems to have the worst luck with personal encounters. This person relates harrowing tales of being cut off by other drivers and nearly having an accident on a daily basis. This person is regularly aggrieved by others – slights of all types and magnitude. This person is opinionated and not the least bit shy about sharing views on a wide range of subjects, often causing discomfort for others. In short, this person lives in a constant state of conflict.

Conflict can be a healthy thing if it’s properly managed. But I sure don’t want to live there. Some people dread and avoid conflict as much as others seem to constantly be embroiled in it. As entrepreneurs it’s next to impossible to completely avoid situations where conflict may arise. And trying to do so may damage our relationships if we fail to be genuine and authentic for the sake of what we perceive as “keeping the peace.” So just how should we manage conflict in a healthy manner? I have learned through experience that there are four elements to managing conflict.

First, we must never play the victim. Conflict begins when we give someone else our power by letting our feelings be hurt or believe that we are being taken advantage of in some way. These feelings bubble up and our resentment builds as we buy into this story that we are telling ourselves. It’s critical that we break this cycle before it starts thereby allowing us to avoid wallowing in and exaggerating the fiction that we have created. Of course there may be instances where someone really is trying to hurt us and take advantage of us. But if we don’t give our power away the perpetrator won’t be able to escalate the conflict.

Second, maintaining a positive attitude is critical to successfully managing conflict. After we eliminate any stray feelings of victimization we need to shift into a 100% positive frame of mind as quickly as possible. Our positive energy is vital to creating the end result that we desire. Think about it. Are we more likely to end up in a good place with negative energy or positive energy? The choice is pretty simple.

Third, we stay in “fact mode.” Let’s assume for a moment that the conflict involves an employee who has accused you of showing favoritism to another employee. The accuser is so upset that he has pleaded his case to a number of his co-workers, causing a minor uproar in the organization. You know this guy is flat wrong but you resist the temptation to feel like a victim and take offense that your integrity and leadership is being impugned. You choose to stay positive and move directly into the fact finding mode. You have a calm and non-accusatory conversation with the angry employee to find out specifically why he believes you are showing favoritism. Perhaps the facts lead you to the realization that this person misunderstood a key piece of information that led to his misperception. You are easily able to share the real facts and quickly defuse the situation.

Finally, we must know when to compromise when appropriate. It’s easy when we know we’re right to become entrenched in our position and dig in our heels. And it might be just as easy to say something like, “I’m sorry for the misunderstanding,” even if we truly aren’t at fault. I do not advocate compromising our core values or our principles. But sometimes it’s better to offer the olive branch when neither is at stake. The conflict may quickly de-escalate at that point and our leadership may be admired and respected.

Managing conflict can be a positive opportunity to build relationships. Entrepreneurs should embrace this opportunity by not playing the victim card; staying positive; pursuing the facts and compromising when it makes sense to do so.

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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Staying Away From the Cliff

What is your reaction when you hear the word “debate?” Is this code for conflict? Entrepreneurs and humankind in general are inclined to try and persuade others to see their point of view. Unfortunately the art of debate has been stigmatized by what happens in the political arena. Political debate has degenerated into something far removed from the honorable tradition of true debate. Sometimes in our business and daily lives what is being termed as “debate” is also something much less noble.

I remember taking debate classes in school. We were taught to construct factual arguments to support our position on an issue. In college my favorite class of all time was Logic. It was fascinating to listen to the professor walk us through various arguments that were commonplace in society and show us where the logic broke down. To effectively persuade and convince others to make decisions that we want them to make, it is helpful to frame our argument in solid facts and logic. To clarify, I’m not using the term “argument” in the “argumentative” sense but rather in the context of a thesis.

Every time I read an article that might contain an element of controversy, I always think of my old college professor as I read the comments. There is often a lot of emotion on a particular subject which may result in ad hominem attacks, name calling and a loss of decorum. Usually when this happens, the offending party has already lost the debate because he/she can’t offer a logical opposing position supported by facts.

In my opinion, the components of a healthy debate include a willingness to lay out one’s position in logical and factual manner; the ability to listen to and understand a contrary position without interruption; the ability to politely use facts and logic to counter the contrary position, and at the end of the day, the willingness to have respect for the person making the contrary argument. In other words, smile and shake hands when it’s all said and done. We may or may not persuade the other person to see our point of view and vice versa, but we avoided falling off the emotional cliff.

The emotional cliff is a dangerous place to be for entrepreneurs. I would much rather persuade someone to agree with my position on something using facts and logic, than appealing to their emotions. Using emotional appeal is another term for manipulation. Business does this every day through marketing a myriad of products and services. But often the person being persuaded is left dissatisfied with the overall experience when he/she realizes the product or service may not meet his/her needs. The feeling of manipulation has a long shelf-life, whether in a marketing or sales sense, or when making decisions based upon the arguments made in debate.

Debate and persuasion that are fact and logic-based can build positive and lasting relationships. When we aspire to stay above the emotional fray we win every time in so many ways.

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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What to Do?

Question: Lately I’ve been faced with some tough decisions. I struggle in this department. How can I make this easier?

Answer: Entrepreneurs by definition have to make a lot of hard decisions. Do we add a new product line or not? Should we raise our prices? Should we fire a client? Can we afford to buy a new piece of expensive equipment? All of these decisions are weighty for a reason. They could have adverse consequences if we’re wrong about what we decide.

Life is full of tough calls. Whether in our business or personal lives one factor that makes decisions hard is a little thing called emotion. The more we can eliminate emotion from our decision making process, the more likely we will be to turn the tough call into the right call. Without emotion we can then turn to a factual approach in this process.

Something that has worked for me over the years has been the use of a decision tree. When I have to make a complex or difficult decision I draw one or more lines down the page. At the top of each column I write a decision that I could make to address a particular situation. There might be two or three possibilities – maybe even more. From each decision I draw lines with boxes underneath. We all know that when decisions are made there are consequences. These boxes contain the consequences. By laying out all of the decisions and the various potential consequences I am able to assess the probability of outcomes and determine which yield the best result with the lowest risk. Doing this insures that emotion remains on the sideline.

Some people say, “Follow your gut instincts.” So you may ask, isn’t gut instinct an emotion? Actually gut instinct is the result of experience. There’s no such thing as pure gut instinct that isn’t based on some level of experience. And this experience can be developed by making decisions over and over utilizing facts and decision trees. Eventually you just know what to decide because you’ve done it so many times. But a strong factual foundation was laid early on.

We can all make the tough decisions with ease when we take the emotion out of the equation. By turning to an examination of the facts we are able to logically figure out what steps to take. And after we do this long and often enough, we develop strong instincts that enable us to act quickly and decisively.

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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