Think Consensus is Good, Think Again…

Think-Consensus-is-Good-Think-Again-John-ThurlbeckAs an established leader, developing executive teams or organizations, and often when working in collaboration with other partners, consensus is required to achieve set goals. Consensus is usually seen as a positive thing – the lubricant that makes team actions successful. However, lurking within, is a significant danger … and that is consensus inertia … sometimes known as ‘groupthink’!

First described by Jerry B Harvey in his article ‘The Abilene Paradox’, consensus inertia strikes at the heart of great leadership because it erodes values; stifles critical thinking, limits creativity; enables undue influence of direction; and, allows inequity of action. It is most commonly experienced due to a breakdown in group communication in which each member of the group mistakenly believes that their own preferences are counter to the group’s and, therefore, do not raise objections, even when discussions are moving in a direction that they believe to be totally unsound.

Avoid consensus inertia by ensuring values and team behavior are fully aligned!” ~John Thurlbeck  Tweet this!

One of the greatest challenges to any leader is to ensure that all members of their team apply critical and independent thinking to the challenges they face together and to feel the freedom to express those views without fear of condemnation or reprisal. Leaders must also avoid the perils and limitations of ‘groupthink’ that can be a major contributory factor to poor business decisions. Effective leaders do this by following four simple rules:

1. They communicate vision and values in a compelling and inclusive way.

Values should fit with the team’s communication, both internally and externally. So, if you say that you are team-oriented where everyone counts, then a traditional ‘command and control’ style will challenge this. Reflecting on and ‘living’ the values of the team provides permission to team members to take responsibility for their own thoughts and actions and not feel constrained to conform. It sets the boundaries and parameters for individual and team action and autonomy.

2. They revisit and refresh purpose … and the values underpinning that purpose.

Regularly taking your team back to its purpose and reflecting on the values that underpins that purpose is the best way to ensure that consensus is real rather than imagined or assumed. Why a focus on values? Because organizational values define the acceptable standards which govern the behavior of individuals within an organization and this helps to limit contradictory behavior.

 3. They confront contradictory behavior.

Effective leaders ensure that they and other team members give feedback to those who don’t live out the vision of the team. They know that if people are allowed to live out contradictory values then, over time, there is a clear danger that those values will usurp the desired values. This can be particularly the case if it is the more dynamic, dominant individuals within the team who are espousing contradictory values.

4. They periodically checkout with feedback from partners.

Great leaders demonstrate courage, openness and are not risk averse! They will periodically ask those involved with their team what they think of its values? They will do this with those involved internally within an organization and with its external partners – including clients, suppliers and other stakeholders. They will then act on that feedback.

Developing effective consensus in driving business decisions and in realizing ambitions and goals is critical for success and a harmonious working climate. However, within the everyday noise and complexity of organizational life, it is so easy to lose sight of! Avoid this by articulating your vision and values in a compelling and inclusive way; modelling your vision and values; inviting others to participate in your vision and values; and seeking feedback as to what others think of them!

Do you have a statement of values for your team? Is it a living expression of current, real values … or just an expression of past desires? When was the last time you reviewed the four simple rules to see how well you and your team are living the values? What other tips do you have? Please share your thoughts and comments below.

About John Thurlbeck

"John is a highly experienced and effective leader, manager and consultant; 25 years in public sector leading and managing change in ‘turnaround situations’; and, 9 years plus as a proactive OD consultant, trainer/facilitator and interim manager, working across the UK and Europe.
Recognised and recommended for great results, expertise, sense of humour and high integrity, John is known as an inspirational and empowering people and organisation developer, underpinned, in particular, by his passion for lifelong learning and making a real difference in the lives of young people. He is also passionate about effective leadership, decision-making and the consequences of choice.
John is Managing Director of his own company, Wear Consulting Limited, an organisation and management development consultancy, based in North East England. The company specialises in strategic focus and direction; leadership and management of public and third sector services, usually focused on work with young people; performance review and improvement; strategic and business planning; cultural change management; and a range of bespoke workforce development programmes, especially building trust, resourcefulness, resilience, and in developing leadership and management capability and capacity at an individual or team level.
John is currently leading on a public sector employee mutual spin-out; the North East Succession Planning Programme; and is engaged in a range of support to commissioners of services for young people. In a voluntary capacity, John is a Trustee of a youth project in Sunderland and the Board Chair of the first UK youth mutual company, based in Durham.
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Comments

  1. It seems people equate consensus with an aligned decision by a team, yet, as you point out, more often than not couldn’t be farther from the reality. Your point about the importance of ensuring team behaviors and values are aligned as a way to overcome “consensus inertia” is well made and your advice about building a healthy team environment is spot on.

    Pursuing consensus is all too often an attempt to move forward despite the underlying misalignment instead of dealing directly with it at the source.

    I wrote an article recently titled Why Consensus Doesn’t Work http://randomactsofleadership.com/why-consensus-doesnt-work/ that you might find of interest – a different facet of the same issue.

    • Hi Susan,

      Somewhat belatedly but not less heartfelt, thank you so much for your feedback and for your support of the position I outlined. I fully agree your view on consensus being used inappropriately, when what is often needed is to tackle the issues at source and I loved your post on voting being a very poor approach when seeking to build consensus.

      Kind regards

      John

  2. Spot on with this post – with a shared vision and values teams should be free to express their views and challenge the status quo respectfully and with integrity. In our company UQ Power we continually check in with our values to ensure we are aligned http://www.uqpower.com.au/our-values

    • Heidi ~ I owe you a sincere apology for failing to reply to your comment on my post … so I am very sorry for my oversight! I was delighted to see that we shared a common strength of view about the centrality of values … and vision! Keeping up alignment with both in any team and/or organisation is fundamental to achieving success … however you might define this! I checked out your link to UQ Power too … and really loved your ideas and thoughts! Cheers John :)

  3. Hello John,

    This is an enlightening article. It is a subject that I’ve taken for granted and never really thought about too much as I’ve been lucky to not have had this problem with my teams, past and present; yet, I’ve seen it happen to others. I’ve also noticed that the reasons for consensus inertia always seem to boil down to a series of people/factors:

    - People who don’t really care about whatever is being discussed. It isn’t so much a case of not agreeing and not speaking up but more that they haven’t got any better ideas.

    My solution: I wouldn’t involve these people in a project not right for them but I wouldn’t want to ignore them either. I would try to figure out what makes them tick and reroute their talents and ideas wherever they can seed their ideas an be more productive.

    - People who probably have great ideas stored away but are terrified to speak up for fear of being ridiculed and because they feel their ideas may be too weak. Furthermore, some are afraid of the consequences of seeing their ideas fail.

    My solution: To engage with these people on a one-to-one basis, help them develop their talents and accompany them to the discussion table, introducing them to the team and making it clear that any contribution will become part of a team effort. We all win or we all lose, no finger pointing.

    - People who have the great ideas, aren’t afraid to speak, yet, don’t…why? These are very dangerous folk because they stay quiet in order to usurp the leader once plan A fails. They then perform the miracle and pull plan B out of the blue.

    My solution: This is a tough one. If the person has any saving graces then delegating isolated tasks can help the person develop their ideas by removing the competition factor. It can be humbling for them if they have to admit defeat. If the person is beyond hope then a departmental transfer or in extremis, out the door.

    - Finally, on a lighter note, I’ve seen people give general consensus from utter boredom and fatigue. Never ending meetings, technical blah, blah with no substance and an empty stomach are great methods to force a general consensus.

    I always prefer to split large projects into logical chunks and let small taskforces set their own schedule for meetings, brainstorming and lunch. I’m a firm believer that an army really does march on its stomach and I love working/business lunches. :)

    Thanks again, John, for helping me revise a long forgotten topic.

    • Hi Enzo

      I loved your analysis and perspective on this post and am very grateful for your further insight! I am also delighted that I helped to revise a long-forgotten topic. Thank you too for offering me some points for further reflection on boredom; fatigue; never ending meetings; technical blah, blah, blah; and an empty stomach being drivers for consensus! You are so right!

      Kind regards

      John

  4. Hi John. Thank you for this great post (one that should be shared far and wide). I am picturing teams that I have worked with in the past who were great at shaking their heads “yes” inside the meeting … and then vehemently vocalizing “no” outside of the meeting. I believe many of us have seen this sometime in our careers.

    Love this statement: “Great leaders demonstrate courage, openness and are not risk averse!” These behaviors are the enemy of consensus … and the superhero of alignment to vision and values.

    Thanks again!

    • Hi Susan ~ you and I clearly share imagery … and, like you, I have experienced that exact behaviour too many times! I also loved your ‘superhero of alignment …’ comment. That gives me an idea for a further blog and some tweets! Thank you very much for responding and for your kind remarks.

      Have a brilliant weekend!

      John

  5. It’s interesting that people considered to be difficult personalities who are not supporting the values may be simply challenging something they believe is fundamentally wrong. So when a leader confronts contradictory behaviour as in 3. they have to do it with an open mind, which is difficult.

    Great blog

    Dave

    • Hi Dave

      Thank you for your comment, which helped to stretch my thinking on #3. I’ve experienced contradictory behaviour in leading teams that arose from a range of sources, including challenge that what we were doing as a team was fundamentally wrong. I’d also go a little further than you in suggesting that challenging such behaviour with an open mind is pretty much impossible to do. Your sensing; hearing or seeing something is telling you that all is not as you think it should be … and therefore a prejudicial view is likely to be forming. I believe though, that in those moments, preparedness to accept the challenge, engage in dialogue and active listening, and to demonstrate openness, integrity, and a willingness to change will go some way to ensuring that any assumed contradictory behaviour is appropriately managed.

      Cheers

      John

  6. Hi John,
    To have consensus, it must be *around something — a vision, goal, issue — and to do that it must be clear! Bravo.

    Message to leaders, clarify that vision and then build consensus. Consensus isn’t bad; lack of focus and utter confusion is.

    Great post.

    Regards,
    Kate

    • Hi Kate – I really welcomed your comments, especially the last one, another Tweetable, about lack of focus and utter confusion being the threat to achieving proper consensus!

      Thank you very much for responding and for your kind remarks.

      Have a brilliant weekend!

      Kind regards

      John

  7. Ram Sunder Singh says:

    With due respect, I agree with the view that for achieving the meditated objective by the leaders , the management demands for performance and not necessarily conformance because different person is carried on by different perception which may lead to chaotic situation in the working team , however we should not negate the importance of effective communication of the essence of project to the working members and if any valuable ideas in crude form comes in lap for amendment in operational strategy during the course of sharing either in house and at outside stake-holders , should be given due by processing the same .

    With Regards,

    Ram Sunder

    • Hi Ram ~ I really appreciated your response to my post and agree entirely that effective communication is critical across the whole team and that information arising from that process must be given due consideration.

      I also believe that leaders should encourage challenge and assume the risks this brings if the interaction is genuinely to draw out the best from all team members. The nature of power dynamics in hierarchical teams is often such that, without providing this permission, the leader will only hear what team members think s/he wants to hear! That is not great consensus in my view and it, ultimately, can be a recipe for disaster.

      Thank you for taking the time to comment … and I wish you a brilliant weekend!

      Kind regards

      John

  8. You surely must have watched me fall on #1 as I presented a new and fabulous idea to my team on Wednesday, totally missed articulating my vision in a compelling and inclusive way. Still trying to recover, licking my wounds, and applying warm compresses to the most painful of parts, with a small dose of suck-it-up and move on. Thank you and I will use your template for my next attempt after assuring that the values and vision for the group is aligned. Blessings!

    • Hi Susan

      Thank you for sharing so honestly this fall from grace, which, whilst I smiled hugely, also reminded me of other times I’ve equally shared that fate! It took me some time into my professional career to fully understand the true value of a compelling vision … and aligned values! I thought your description of the consequences of your actions were brilliantly graphic and I hope you are well on the way to recovery … and that your team understand that to err is human after all! I wish you great success with your next attempt!

      Kind regards

      John

  9. Ali Paskun says:

    Great post, John. I especially appreciate point #2. I have seen teams flounder because they had lost sight of the vision. Regularly revisiting the vision, and updating it if necessary, is important for the team to stay on track.

    • Hi Ali

      Thank you for your kind comment. We both clearly share similar experiences of teams … and I’d also say partnerships … where focus on the the vision had gone and people were merely behaving mechanistically. Refreshing the vision and re-determining the underpinning values has regularly been my approach in such situations. There must be a clear purpose to what we do, else why do we do it?

      Kind regards

      John

  10. Great post John (and hello David). I love this ‘group’ stuff. So powerful, and so much learning to be gained from it. I loved reading recently about a simple experiment played out on the ‘guess how many sweets are in the jar’ theme. In one scenario, individuals in a group are asked to privately (no discussion allowed) make a guesstimate and write it down. The guesses were gathered together and the experimenter calculated the group’s average. The result was surprisingly close to the actual number. In a second scenario, the group were invited to discuss and share guesstimates with each other, but then had to come up with a group consensus guess. In this scenario the results were inevitably wild of the mark. Why? Groupthink! Influence, persuasion, dominant personalities, pressure etc. Thanks for a really thought-provoking post.

    • Hi Louis

      It was a real pleasure to see your comment and to find out you also know David! I loved the story you shared and the evident impact that influence, persuasion, peer pressure and dominant personalities can play in team dynamics. Like you, I find these fascinating subjects. I’m also glad that you found the post thought -provoking, so thanks for looking this up.

      Kind regards

      John

  11. Hi John

    Thanks for reminding me of the Abilene Paradox – must update my materials because it should be required reading for all teams. Why have a team if you want everyone to think like you. There’s a great story of JFK priming his brother Bobby to automatically oppose everything that a key leadership group stated, in order to avoid groupthink. Maybe not surprising after the Bay of Pigs, but a useful concept nonetheless.

    I guess they key is leaders keeping minds open when they get feedback rather than rationalising their intentions. “Black hats’ often get a bad press, but they are so useful to good decision making.

    Thanks as ever for your contribution and have a great weekend!

    Cheers

    David

    • Hi David

      I am delighted to see that we feel the same about this issue in regard to teams … and I loved the story of JFK and his brother. I’m also a practitioner of the ‘Six Thinking Hats’ and your comment on the ‘Black Hat’ perspective is very well made. They are critical to good decision-making.

      In addition, I think compliant behaviour like that noted above is also not limited to team settings. I also find in training scenarios that encouraging challenge to me from participants is often met by puzzled and confused looks … and uncomfortable moments. Isn’t it fascinating the power that people give away, almost without thought?

      Thanks very much for your comment and have a brilliant weekend!

      Kind regards

      John

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