Monday, May 23, 2011

Consensus and Decision-making

We sat around their kitchen table, tea cups in hand, a small bowl of nuts and home grown, dried apples plus dishes in the sink, and sun coming in through the windows. It was a Saturday morning and I had come to ask a question.

Both were retired and successful, former senior executives who were now in their 70’s. Both I had known since I had first come to Iowa, and both, in two different organizations, had used consensus successfully to make major strategic decisions. My question was a simple one: “What can you tell me about consensus from your years of experience?”

This subject was on my mind because during the Fall 2010 From Vision to Action Executive Roundtable, one group of people at a table I was sitting with got into a vigorous and interesting discussion about the role of consensus in leadership and change. When they turned to me, and asked for my perspective about when to use it, how to do it, and what assumptions are contained within it, I didn’t know what to actually share. Therefore, I began reading and seeking out new perspectives on this subject. Recognizing that experienced people offer greater insights than books, I turned to these two retired executives for fresh perspective.

First, they noted that consensus in a business setting is quite different than in a religious setting. In a religious setting, the most common setting for where consensus is used, everyone has an equal voice. The group is working in accord with God’s will and they agree with God more than each other. This kind of consensus comes out of a shared experience of worship.

In a business setting, this is not the case. Positional leadership gives people different levels of control and power. This power differential is present from the very beginning of the consensus process. For many, they struggle with consensus in a business setting because they have to let go of power and thus they feel more vulnerable

In the beginning, they also shared that for consensus to work in a business setting, those involved need to respect each other and all work with the same accurate and timely data and figures. Starting from a shared understanding of the business and a willingness to agree or step aside, those gathered must have knowledge of the issues before the consensus process starts. Otherwise, they will not know know why they are seeking consensus on an issue.

Next, from their experience, they pointed out that for the conversations and dialogue related to consensus to work, all must show up, pay attention, listen, and let the disagreements get expressed. They noted that from their experience consensus may take longer, but implementation will go faster and better, and with less resistance and/or sabotage. They also noted that those involved need to be honest, but not mean, and not to hold on to preconceived end results/outcomes

That morning they explained to me that those who struggle with consensus are the ones who are sure they are right, have differences of expectations, lack respect for others, and hang on to an agenda or outcome. I know there is more to learn and explore when it comes to consensus but this is what I have discovered so far.

Geery Howe, M.A.Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer inLeadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational ChangeMorning Star Associates319 - 643 - 2257

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