Organizations can have the flu. And it can become epidemic. The epidemic of consensus is one.
The conversation often starts like this: ‘this culture is a culture of consensus’. Blib, blip, blip. This is a bad sign. Nobody has ever installed a culture of consensus. This is probably slow or fast behavioural contamination under a ‘cultural archetype’.
Translation. What it often means is that responsibilities and accountabilities are loose and everybody is checking with everybody else before moving. OK, I am sure there are genuine cases of seeking lots of people ideas and reaching a common denominator, but in 4 out 5 cases, in my experience, what we see is pseudo-consensus. That is a bad habit of epidemic proportions in which people pretend they are seeking consensus but, in reality, they’re recycling unfinished arguments, reinforcing insecurity, slowness, terrible decision making process and a huge dose of navel gazing when the world outside is moving at the speed of light.
This pseudo-consensus pathology also breeds two dysfunctional children:
Over-inclusiveness. Everybody needs to be part of, copied on, called to, counted and heard. Many of these things sound good and democratic but their excesses constitute a big liability. Over-inclusiveness is a good selling but eventually those who have been invited to the inclusion complain of too many meetings, too many emails, too many calls, and too many requests for input.
The over-included wants to be included, until he has been included. Over-inclusiveness is more often than not a dysfunctionality of the organization not a merit to be proud of.
Loose follow up. Decisions are made (eventually) but the collective psyche of the organization says hang on, that may change, wait a bit to see if sticks. Multiply that times ( pick a number) and you have a slow motion decision system.
‘Culture of consensus’ is an attribute of some national cultures, scholars tells us. I am sure there is a good reason for that, and tons of research handy to explain it. I am sceptical about that, not because I don’t believe there is essence in the transcultural propositions, but because I think it is a bad start in your thinking, particularly when working on the organizational life. Culturalists will hate me for this but, my rule of thumb is, never start from a premise of ‘national culture’. if you do, you will be wearing some specific glasses and all you’ll see what you want to see. By the way, there is a term for this: confirmation bias.
All the beauty of true consensus can be destroyed in five minutes if you start with the proposition that ‘it must be consensus’, always, at any cost, so get ready for lengthy discussions, slow decision making, interminable recycling and sheer resignation with ‘the way things will be here’.
Personally, I regret not having challenged the imposed ‘consensus archetype’ many times.