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Surviving the Joys of Consensus

Imagine you’re working with six people, all housed in a tight

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space. Things are sailing along smoothly until one day when a

new employee shows up with a huge boom box-it looks like 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




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




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.

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