I have quite a few conversations about the role of a facilitator, and participatory leadership. One topic frequently comes up: “Paul, why do you use this word ‘consensus’ all the time, when we’re never going to get everyone to agree? A strong leader’s role is to make decisions and drive a team forward to success, even when everyone doesn’t agree.” Or something along those lines. It’s a valid question.
Part of this comes from a basic misunderstanding about what “consensus” is. Consensus is NOT unanimous agreement. Rather, consensus is a collective decision by a group to move forward with an answer that everyone in the group can “live with”, and that everyone acknowledges is in the best interest of the group. The key to consensus is HOW it is developed, through a truly participatory process.
I’ve had the great privilege of working with several hundred clients over the past three decades. I’ve observed A LOT of management and leadership styles – some effective, others not so effective. I’ve also led my own teams, at various points in my career. And my own approach has changed quite a bit over that time, as the conditions have required, and as I’ve learned and grown.
One thing I’ve learned, is that very little progress actually happens in an organization without individual commitment to action by members of the group. Strong-willed leaders, pushing their “vision”, will only get you so far, as will micro-management of activities. Individuals will invest sustained energy in a vision or activity only if they truly believe it is for the good of the group, or they see it will benefit them directly. We use all kinds of management-speak to describe this; perhaps “alignment” is used most frequently.
Many of us intuitively seek the “ideal” solution to a problem. But a less optimal approach, driven with commitment and passion by an engaged team, will yield superior results to the “ideal” solution that no one is committed to. It’s not really the quality of the solution that matters… it’s the quality of the commitment.
It’s almost impossible to create consensus “from scratch”… but it is possible to surface existing agreement contained within the “wisdom of the group”, by facilitating an open and structured dialog on the topic at hand. Then we can build on this mutual understanding of the problem, and agreement on underlying principles, to develop a solutions approach and action plan that deserves and achieves group consensus and commitment to act.
Consensus is so important not only because it greatly increases the likelihood of success, but also for other positive benefits it has for the team. The consensus process leverages the wisdom of the entire team to craft the most effective solution that will have sustained support over time. The consensus process is itself a team building activity. It builds deep understanding and strong trust among participants, far more so than “trust falls” and obstacle courses. The consensus process develops a sense of ownership and empowerment among the team, driving together toward the good of the organization. Consensus process participants are much more intellectually and emotionally engaged in the well being of the organization as a whole. And consensus decisions require less management, as participants hold each other accountable for action and results.
Participatory processes can be intimidating or scary to some managers who aren’t accustomed to this approach. The manager may be relinquishing some level of control, in empowering the team to take on a more active role in planning. Activities must be planned and facilitated carefully to ensure the group is set up to succeed. But I’ve seen participatory methods transform organizations and the attitudes of stakeholders in a very short time, overcoming deep-seated cultural challenges and creating a sense of ownership and empowerment. With the help of an expert facilitator, the risk is very low and the benefits are tremendous.