The trouble with consensus is that it contains all the risks of poor thinking and all the possible cognitive biases, all in one. Yet, I am not saying we don’t need consensus, or that consensus is bad. We all have experienced the blessing of achieving it, and its anxiolytic properties. Something inside us is telling us, this is a good thing. But let’s try this.
If you start with consensus in mind as the uniquely desired outcome, your mind will try to avoid conflict as fast as possible. If you avoid conflict, you’ll miss the real issue very soon. You’ll be poorer. But perhaps happier.
When we reach consensus, we give consent to each other (this is the root): consent to agree, to feel good and proud, to feel that the debate was good, and, above all, that we are such great guys who can achieve this, unlike the other terrible ones who are still discussing, and ‘can never agree’.
The role of the leader is to avoid consensus, not to create it; to make sure that there is tension, that people pulling in different directions can really pull. There is a false concept of leadership which equates leadership with conflict resolution. The leader in an organization is not a Chief Negotiator in Peace Talks. Tension is good. We need more. But we fear it, don’t like it, and we dressed it up with adjectives such as ‘creative tension’. That, apparently, dilutes a bit the toxic.
You may now be in the path of being perplexed now reading this. I am stretching the argument by polarizing the extremes. I am avoiding reaching an easy and early consensus with you. Please don’t agree with me. Not yet.
More. If you ran a product oriented organization, say, with Marketing, Sales, R&D and Manufacturing, you want each of these functions to be in tension, not in consensus. Sales wants as many forms and shapes and prices for the product as possible. R&D wants one that works. Marketing only the ones that sale. Manufacturing want one version, one box, one size, one colour. The CFO wants the cheapest. Etc. If you start from consensus, probably nobody is doing a good job. Let the functions pull out. That is the only way to see, hear and feel the merits of each argument.
At some point, at some magic milestone, somebody, somewhere (hello leadership) has to put an end to tension and call a decision. The decision will be based on data plus judgment. The decision(s) may be individual, may be collective. That point of decision may or may not be equal to consensus. On the contrary the tensions may remain. But decisions are made. Here we go. Disconnect agreement from consensus at any cost.
The art of the leader is to navigate the tensions, not to suppress them, and do so with imagination, humanity, respect, encouragement of openness, allowing displays of passions (not suppressing them) and making sure that everybody is at his or her very best. That is by definition messy. The leader needs to master the messy stuff to allow all expressions, all the tensions, and yet, maintain humanity and sanity.
And yes, for the record, there may be a healthy consensus! Consensus is perhaps at its best when it is a silent outcome with no label, a destination reached without knowing that you were traveling there.
The words consensus and agreement cannot be allowed to become the normal every day status. With the best of intentions, they may be the modern organizational barbiturates.