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easy is harder

Throughout my career I’ve had experiences with government, nonprofit and corporate cultures, and I’ve noticed a leadership pattern in all three that any leader can learn from.

Consensus means different things to different people. Be brave. Do Your Job.

Don’t take the ”easy” path.

The word consensus is based on the Latin word “consent,” which according to Dictionary.com means “to be in agreement.” Most people take this into the absolute realm and interpret consensus to mean, “everyone agrees with everything.”

Bad idea. Executive Coaching tip: people are designed at the molecular level NOT to agree on everything. So why set yourself up for the tyranny of the minority?

Leader, Do Your Job

If you’re a leader trying to get everyone to agree with you, you’ll end up optimizing for the squeakiest wheel instead of doing your job, which is to involve those who have a stake in the issue and then shoulder the burden, risk and opportunity of decision to move things forward. The inability to use consensus to manage conflict is particularly debilitating in change management initiatives.

There are three primary reasons leaders don’t do this and struggle (usually in vain) to get everyone to agree:

  • They think the “easy way” is to avoid conflict by getting 100% agreement up front, but avoiding initial disagreement usually leads to “subversive agreement” and ensures conflict and confusion down the line when differences re-emerge and muck up your efforts to actually produce something.
  • They’re afraid to take risks to achieve opportunity, falling prey to management-by-CYA.
  • They never learned how to manage a workable definition of consensus to management conflict up front and thus become skilled at mitigating the risks of achieving opportunity.

A Workable Definition of Consensus

I learned the workable definition of consensus early on in my career when I was an international government affairs rep for big tech. The long and short of my job was to advocate my company and industry’s position to government regulators, policy makers, legislators and negotiators around the globe. Here’s what I noticed, the negotiators were masters of achieving workable consensus, and everyone else in government pretty much sucked at it.

Why? Because the negotiators were on the hook to produce something. They set deadlines to force agreement (or not) and to give their stakeholders a reason to reach workable consensus if it was reachable. I spent many a late night in a little room with other industry reps over cold pizza crusts waiting for the lead trade negotiator to come in with “the final” deal for us to weigh in on. At 11:35pm facing a 12am deadline, do you know what consensus looks like? It looks like what people can live with – most people, not all people – the most important people, not all people. [Sidenote: I didn’t work for “the most important people” so I learned this lesson too, if you want to win, align yourself (if you can) with the most important people.]

Does this make all leaders negotiators? Well, I’m not sure I’d go that far, but when your decision affects many stakeholders, fostering a negotiations mindset is a good idea because at the end of the day the decisions you make that have important-people-buy-in are going to be easier to implement. Implementation is messy enough; don’t increase your risks of disaster by sloppy consensus mismanagement up front.

Although I’ve seen this definition of consensus in action through the years many times, it wasn’t until I saw Chris McGoff’s CONSENSUS PRIME that the simplicity of it struck me. I think every leader should be schooled in CONSENSUS, which states:

  • The process must be explicit, rational and fair.
  • Participants must be treated well and their inputs must be heard.
  • Participants can live with and commit to the outcome.

(Watch Chris explain this concept in his 2.5 minute video.)

Empower Your Team With Workable Consensus

Recently I’ve been reminded – not just of the power of workable consensus – but of the powerlessness that the “easy” Latin definition of 100% agreement can foster. Several government agencies recently brought me in to provide leadership development training to mid-level government management teams. I presented the CONSENSUS PRIME and shoulders slumped all over the room. This happened consistently across agencies. “Why the long faces?” I asked, sure that would have welcomed workable consensus to help them manage so many conflicting priorities. “That’s the answer to our problems,” everyone said. “But can you teach it to our bosses?” (And they meant bosses all the way to the top.)

With some work, these mid-level managers did come to understand how they could make workable consensus effective for them even in the face of CYA-happy superiors, but the implications were clear. Until leaders are willing to accept the challenge of achieving workable consensus – being brave, taking risks and believing they’re on the hook to actually produce something – the CYA Latin definition of consensus will rule our culture and we’ll just keep passing the implementation mess on to our future.

This post originally appeared on the Reclaiming Leadership blog. Check out my new self-service women’s leadership coaching website:InPowerCoaching.com.

Dana Theus