Consensus and absence of leadership | Sunday Observer

Consensus and absence of leadership

19 June, 2022

A fair percentage of leaders, especially in complex operations with a large number of employees and management hierarchy pursue the holy grail of decision making by consensus. Consensus improves the decision-making process and is extremely useful in a group setting, or for critical planning sessions during tough times in particular where no business will have ideal solutions. 

Unless consensus is reached, conflicts will emerge and either the team will end up in deadlock, where no further progress can be made or ‘majority rule’ will be used to impose actions, leaving the minority dissatisfied. Dissatisfaction then leads to the sabotage of the activity and team performance.

Team members, who feel their point of view has not been considered, disengage from team goals. They may even actively try to prevent the team from moving effectively ahead towards the end result. No doubt, consensus building is often the most effective way to make this happen.

Why is the idea of consensus in decision-making so appealing? Some leaders are following the allure of a fantasy that “nobody will be mad at me.” A leader’s wish to avoid conflict, or to avoid being perceived as controlling, mean, or power-hungry, makes consensus building seem like a good approach.

Sadly, every leader learns they must learn to tolerate making people unhappy and not being liked - at least at times. It might seem like consensus decision making is more nurturing and that it’s past time for a change from more forceful, hierarchical masculine approaches. But arriving at a consensus is not the only way to avoid being a jerk as a leader or to foster a more collaborative and creative office environment.

Consensus – both good and bad

Decisions, if they’re worth paying attention to at all, involve weighing pros and cons, assessing input from an array of experiences and sources, calculating priorities, applying values and estimating consequences.

Since no two people are going to go through these complex processes the same way, there is an exponential set of factors that comes into play in group decision making. Ultimately, someone has to narrow down the data points into those that are most important, and that’s the leader with ultimate authority.

In every social structure there is almost always a hierarchy of responsibility. Someone is the leader with ultimate authority. This holds true even when the idea of consensus is highly valued and publicly proclaimed.

Ultimately, this leader is responsible and has final decision-making capacity. The consensus building process can be experienced as a tease by team members, who feel tantalised by the idea that they are equal partners in the decision but retain an awareness that they are not. Or, in some cases, the team members buy the pretense of egalitarianism and then are enraged when the boss makes a decision that is at odds with their position.

The principle of consensus easily encourages lasting splits in the ranks where two opposing groups concentrate on winning their position rather than solving the problem for the organisation’s overall benefit. It makes people anxious.

Imagine a military unit in combat if consensus were needed before taking an action. This leads to no one taking the lead to propose to take the business forward progressively. Many organisations fight for months over “who’s right” without realising that there are two or more positions that are equally valuable and must be accommodated in some fashion.

What can you do instead?

Understand and clarify the true management structure. Who is ultimately responsible for their own areas? Who should have the power, authority and accountability to make a decision if the decision has a strong ‘business case’.

Permit managers to use their creativity and be accountable for results. Permit the decision-maker to communicate the final decision to all parties and explain why it was made, with special care to explain to people with dissenting views why their approach was not considered.

Emphasise that dissenting views are welcome and needed without conceding ground that minority opinions are just that. Acknowledge with some humility that there’s no absolutely right way to go and that there is an irreducible degree of uncertainty involved, but you made the best decision you could in the circumstances.

Consensus is not always possible and in all situations due to hard held opinions and if that decision personally affect their comforts and using political power to overcome the opposing side enervates the organisation.

A wise leader must dismantle the twin fantasies involved — that consensus will be obtained or that power will work — and challenge the group to find ways to incorporate difference into its structure, functioning and future as long as the intention is to sustain the performance of the business at difficult times.

Gone are the days when you can reach consensus for any decision in any field so you keep the end result in mind and move ahead for survival. Living with differences is the fact of life relevant to all – especially in the worst ever times such as now.