Surviving the Joys of Consensus
Imagine you’re working with six people, all housed in a tight
space. Things are sailing along smoothly until one day when a
storage shed with a handle on top. It has its own set of wheels.
Thirty seconds later, the pulsing sounds of a band called Decibel
Death fill your area. You’re not happy. You fear your head will
explode. How might you handle this?
Or how about this challenge? How do you decide the temper
ature of the room you share?
Or how about this one? Where does the entire family go on
Or if you want to take on a real corker-who performs the
most distasteful jobs at home and at work?
These are the kinds of decisions where neither consultation nor
command tools work very well. Everyone is affected, everyone
cares, and there are several options-not equally liked. This kind
of crucial conversation calls for consensus. Everyone meets, hon
estly and openly discusses the choices, comes up with a variety of
ideas, and jointly makes a decision that each person agrees to sup
port. As is the case with all crucial conversations, this is not an
easy process and is routinely handled poorly. Here are some hints
for avoiding common mistakes .
• Don’t force consensus onto everything. As Abraham Maslow
once sa id, ” I f t he only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to
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see every problem as a nail.” Consensus decision making is
one of today’s widely used hammers. People apply it to situa
tions that don’t deserve the time and attention needed to come
to a consensus or that can’t be solved unanimously.
For example, forty people are brought together to decide on
the color of the work area. That’s too many people. Use con
sultation. A team meets to decide if each team member should
use a certain type of coffee mug (we’re not making this up) .
Let people choose their own. A couple asks their son to decide
his own punishment. Not always a good idea. Some decisions
need to be made by command.
• Don’t pretend that everyone gets his or her first choice. Nobody
ever said that with consensus everyone gets his or her way.
Consensus isn’t about getting your way; it’s about doing what’s
best for the family or team. It requires give and take. It demands
compromise followed by the resolve to support (in some cases)
your second or third choice-because it’s best for the group.
• No martyrs please. Healthy teams and families are good at
coming to consensus because they’re good at dialogue. They
don’t toggle from silence to violence or otherwise play games
in order to get their way. Since everyone has a say and says it
well, healthy groups don’t end up with the same people con
stantly giving in and then playing the role of martyr. “Are you
enjoying the theme park? Don’t worry about me. I’ll just sit
here on the curb and try to think of what it would have been
like to go to Paris.”
• Don’t take turns. Decisions should be based on merit, not on
who offers up the options. Don’t take turns getting your way.
“Well, Leona, my recollection is that you gave in last time, so
I guess it’s our turn to roll over on this one.” Make the deci
sion based on which proposal best meets the needs of the
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group. This doesn’t mean that people don’t take into account
personalities or strength of desire (deferring to those who care
a great deal when you don’t care all that much, for instance) .
It simply means that the future of your family or organization
shouldn’t come down to the flip of a coin.
• Don ‘t engage in postdecision lobbying. Consensus decisions
should be made out in the open and as an entire group.
Withholding your reservations and then approaching individu
als after the discussion is both inefficient and disloyal. If you
have an issue, bring it up in front of the group. Leave unhealthy
alliances, dirty deals, and secret discussions to people who are
on reality game shows. They can afford to abuse one another,
take their winnings, and then go their separate ways. With fam
ilies and work groups, you stay together long after the ugly
behavior and you suffer the long-term consequences .
• Don’t say «[ told you so. ” Nothing is quite so annoying as
having someone agree on a choice (his or her second choice,
perhaps) and then cry, “I told you so!” when it doesn’t work
out. Once you’ve decided on something as a group, support
the idea-not even when it fails, but particularly when it fails.
There’s no room for fair-weather family members or team
mates. Show character. When an idea doesn’t work out, own
the failure together.