Consensus sounds so nice: Everyone agrees and moves forward together. Kumbaya! Seems like a good thing, right?

But here’s how one client described the way his company practices consensus (with my italics): “We have to take all these teeny little baby steps to get to consensus, one painful meeting after another. So by the time we get close, we’re all bought in, and we smile and swallow the Kool-Aid, even if it tastes like battery acid.”

A Common Drawback to Consensus Management

In my client’s company, new decisions may only be taken after everybody gingerly and repetitively tests the waters. Managers ask themselves and each other: “Where and how have we been the most successful? Where will our leaders be comfortable enough and perceive the least possible risk — of failure, of confusion, of dissension?”

My client describes the current initiative as “pretty vanilla, but we’re trying to make it extremely digestible so it’s easy for people to try.”

In “groupy” companies like this one, where there’s a high value placed on avoiding conflict and getting along, there can be significant penalties for raising challenges, even if those challenges could strengthen the decision or initiative. People who speak up with opposing views are often made to feel as if their comments — or they themselves — are a problem.

Another Consensus Predicament

team-consensusConsensus is often a core value in start-ups and family-run or privately-held businesses. Some founders and owners declare that every employee’s opinion matters. Unfortunately, this claim can translate into an expectation that every voice be heard on every subject, regardless of knowledge, skills or expertise.

Even more dangerous is the cultural norm which dictates that the group will not move forward until all participants are satisfied. This can become a formula for the group’s weakest links or its least satisfied or least agreeable members to assume de facto leadership.

Too many people just like to hear themselves talk, and some even use their personal anxieties or hesitance to hold back an entire group. Anyone who’s willing to be the most difficult, oppositional, or critical can win in the end, even if their view is ineffectual or outright wrong.

When it comes to business decisions, all opinions are not inherently equal — and they don’t all need to be formally expressed as part of the decision-making process. Insisting that “everyone holds hands” may be a dodge to shield individuals from personal responsibility or blame for mistakes.

Are You Experiencing the Downside of Consensus at Your Company?

If your organization expends more effort on reaching consensus than on making good decisions, you’ve probably noticed some of these ill effects:

  • Reduced creativity and suppressed innovation — even when leaders say they want it;
  • An inherent lack of diversity of thinking, which leads to a stunning lack of diversity in people;
  • Lots of wasted time caused by procrastination, extra meetings, and delays — leaving everyone overly busy even while initiatives stall;
  • Fear and anxiety about giving offense;
  • Dread of backroom deals;
  • Poor, superficial thinking;
  • Passive-aggressive behavior and communication at all levels;
  • Turnover of the best and brightest once they figure out what’s really going on.