“Consensus management” is a poor excuse for leadership

In business and society today, there is the philosophy that in the first step in any discussion, project, initiative, or, in some cases, relationship, everyone involved must agree. In fact, agreement is often considered more important than truth. This approach is wrong! A leader that seeks consensus over truth is a poor leader!

There is a Chinese proverb called “Three men and a tiger.” The story refers to an individual’s tendency to accept absurd information as long as it is repeated by enough people. A lie, if repeated often enough, will eventually be accepted as truth.

I recently ran across the following quote that speaks to the fallacy of seeking consensus:

“Consensus means that everybody agrees to say collectively what no one believes individually.” — Abba Evan

There are at least seven reasons why a good leader should NOT seek the easy, lazy way to make decisions and solve critical problems:

  1. Consensus management is lazy management – By deferring decisions to a majority opinion, a leader is taking the easy path toward a decision. Reaching the best decisions using facts, data, and truthful information can be hard work. By allowing a simple discussion and vote, the leader has abdicated responsibility for making a potentially critical discussion to a popularity contest.
  2. Consensus management often ignores truth – When a leader allows opinions to dictate decisions, driving facts may be ignored. Participants will often emphasize opinions, rather than facts, to influence others as the group drives to a consensus. Facts must always trump opinions!
  3. Consensus management often defers to the loudest voice in the room – By seeking a consensus, the leader essentially allows the voices of a few to drive the decision. And, these voices are often those that are the loudest and most emotion, rather than those delivering facts, alternatives, and potential issues.
  4. Consensus management inhibits participation – When faced with some voicing strong opinions, many individuals will simply choose to not speak up. This is especially true for individuals less outgoing or more introverted. Allowing only those with strong opinions to dominate the discussion inhibits those that quite possibly have the best input.
  5. Consensus management is often emotion-based rather than fact-based – When seeking a consensus, the discussion becomes one of influencing others to one path rather than the best path. It becomes a process of winning votes rather than identifying what is best for the group. Thus, emotion becomes the key factor to influence and dissuade others rather than objectively reviewing and discussing the facts of the situation.
  6. Consensus management inhibits individual and innovative thought – Consensus drives toward the majority opinion, not necessarily the best decision. As a result, the group tends to discourage thoughts considered “outside the box”. Thus, innovating thoughts and solutions are rarely considered.
  7. Consensus management often ignores the root issue – Consensus tends to strive for a fast decision without considering the root issue or without seeking answers that should address the core issue. For critical decisions, speed is often the enemy of truth.

Certainly, there are times when a “vote” or “decision by majority” is appropriate. For example, when trying to decide issues in which individual “preference” is involved, a vote following discussion of available facts is appropriate.  Selection of the All-American college football team is a good example. A case can be made with facts for several different choices, thus, reaching a final choice must often be made by a vote of individuals with specific knowledge of statistics supporting each choice. However, most decisions in management should be seeking the best path forward, not the favorite path forward.

Real leadership is always a challenge. Making key decisions is difficult enough without the added challenges and limitations associated with consensus management. It is often easier and faster to abdicate your responsibilities as a leader to the group. However, don’t fall into that trap!

“Real leadership seeks the best answer… not the one based on opinions, the one reached most expeditiously, or the one considered most politically acceptable. The wrong answer is still the wrong answer even if everyone thinks it is the right answer.”

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