Consensus. Everyone gets their voice heard, all sides of an issue are aired and all potential decisions get vetted, and then the group comes together and agrees on the best solution. The best solution may even be a combination of 2 or more of the ideas. Fair, democratic, inclusive. What could be better?
But what is Consensus, really? While it may be a deliberate choice for a governing method due to the desire to limit the power or control of any one individual, I have often seen it as a sign of weak leaders. It is many times driven by political correctness, fear, or a desire to avoid confrontation and to be liked. And the fuel of Consensus is Compromise.
So what is Compromise? It means that nobody gets what they really want. As the old saying goes, “If nobody’s totally happy with the solution, then it’s probably the right answer.” Really? Why can’t somebody be right and somebody else be wrong? Or why can’t an installed leader be given the authority to make a decision, right or wrong, and then be judged later on the outcome rather than an evaluation of the decision itself?
Earlier in my career, a co-worker and I were both assigned to manage the flow of information between two companies that were merging. One day, we were given the task of requesting some information from all of the managers of one of the companies. My colleague jumped to it and drafted an e-mail and asked me to review it. In my opinion, the way the request was worded was inaccurate and likely to cause the readers to jump to conclusions and start to gossip and complain. So I drafted what I thought was a much more accurate and less provocative message and provided it back to my co-worker. He took great offense, told me that I had completely missed the point and that I was actually misleading the managers. So we entered an hour-long negotiation of how to word this 2 paragraph e-mail. The result was neither his vision nor mine, but rather a compromise.
The e-mail was sent, and almost immediately we began receiving heated responses from the managers jumping to conclusions and accusing the other company of all sorts of things. I, of course, indicated that the negative reaction was due to the portions of my co-worker’s wording that I had agreed, through compromise, to leave in the final note. My colleague, of course, blamed the ideas in the note that came from me.
So would his original e-mail have evoked the same response? Would mine have? Guess what? It’s possible that either of the original drafts would have been just fine. But we’ll never know because we compromised and sent out a message that neither of us was happy with, created by Consensus.
We see this all of the time in the Federal Government. If you take the politics out of it (impossible, I know) the opposite sides of the aisle have very different views of the solutions to our Country’s challenges. And while I personally come down strongly on one side of the argument, I’m willing to acknowledge that it is at least possible that either approach could work if fully enacted. But we almost never get a chance to see a pure approach to anything from Washington. What we usually get is a compromise solution that contains parts of multiple approaches. And those parts are almost certainly not designed or even likely to work together. So the outcome is almost doomed from the start.
So what does everyone think? When is Consensus an appropriate method for decision making? When is it not? Can a strong leader consistently lead by consensus? I’m interested in your feedback.