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Is It Contentious To Not Have Consensus?

empowerment leadership May 12, 2022
Leaders love to talk about being challenged and welcoming diverse ideas, but seldom take being challenged well. What gives?

There’s an ongoing drive to be the most competitive on the block when it comes to leadership. For decades, competition has echoed in the boardroom.

Compete! Innovate! Grow! Stand out from the noise!

Oh, and do it faster than everyone else. There’s a reason for that, isn’t there? Speed matters in competition.

But the problem with these superlatives is they often devolve into blind obedience and consensus. Change is scary, and so is standing out to challenge the status quo. Innovation is a lot of work—and that's why it hasn't been done before.

The mandate to be agile and innovative often erodes the hypocritical corporate mantras of “everyone has a voice” and “diversity matters” into nothing more than lip service.

Leading without contention means your company will devolve onto a path of least resistance and stagnation—no matter how much lipstick you put on the pig.

Consensus is the antonym of innovation

Forcing consensus does not improve your competitiveness to innovate.

When leaders seek (or imply) consensus on a big topic, they often want agreement, unanimity, or a meeting of minds to hit aggressive targets with speed. Albeit while also rallying a team to be innovative, and fast.

This is corporate doublespeak.

Innovation means bringing more diverse and distinctive viewpoints into the mix—listening—and bringing those ideas to life. Even if that means uncomfortable moments of being challenged or delaying an outcome for a better benefit.

Forced consensus can damage your culture and weaken leadership.

It's not double-plus good

George Orwell’s 1984 is referenced often for its biting satirical bent, and the double standards Orwell writes about regarding governments in the dystopian world can be found in modern business as well.

Everyone says that a strong culture is vital in the workplace. No argument there. Everyone says that a wide range of opinions is important. Again, a no-brainer.

But when consensus is forced for the sake of moving quickly (or just moving past a difficult project), that tends to be thrown out.

“Let’s all get moving in the same direction. Let’s align completely. Everyone has to fall in line. Get on the bus or leave.”

Consensus, in its way, shines a light on corporate hypocrisy, just less deftly than Mr. Orwell did. You will find out if your company values other voices besides the standard ones when innovation is requested.

Enough with the shouting

When you try to reach a consensus, the loudest voices tend to dominate. It doesn’t usually matter what they are saying: volume speaks volumes.

It’s more important to encourage those with great ideas to share them in a safe environment.

Let team conversations be more about exchanging ideas. Sometimes this can be accomplished in group settings, but more often your team will need dedicated 1:1 time to share their ideas with you as a safe backboard for ideation.

Yes, that means 3-5x more work for leadership.

But this added effort drives better outcomes, encourages your team to be heard, and gives you access to more information to navigate difficult problems across your team.

You'll also have an opportunity to recognize those on your team for their unique contributions—even through conflict—and be the glue that brings everyone together toward consensus.

We must stop the shouting to allow voices beyond the majority to ring out and influence our teams.

What can you do to promote ideas?

Instead of going on and on (and on some more) about how important consensus is, focus instead on the importance of great ideas and planning. Some things to consider:

Listen more

• Concentrate on what people are saying to understand how it fits your planning. Ask others how they would go about making their ideas a reality. How would they execute? What problems do they anticipate?

• Don’t just listen to talk again when it’s your turn. Write down thoughts or scribble notes while learning from others. If your leadership is challenged, embrace the feedback and ask more questions instead of defending yourself (especially in public forums).

• Create safe spaces where folks are comfortable giving you their perspectives and recognizing their contributions.

As a leader, you'll often get watered down intel, hindering your 360 degree view on your area of responsibility and diluting team performance. You'll have to meet each member of your team on their level—where they are most comfortable to encourage more idea flow.

Involve people outside your inner circle

Don’t forget about your clients or customers. Whether you’re gathering data or forming stronger relationships, seek these outside voices. Advisors and consultants with unconventional experiences can also inspire new ideation.

Welcome greater diversity

Involve people from different backgrounds, identities, and lived experiences. The research is clear on this: Socially diverse groups are more innovative than homogenous ones. This may mean taking a second look at job requirements, desired expertise, and organizational hiring clichés to battle bias.

Involve people down the hall (or in a Zoom chat you aren’t invited to)

Yes, it’s time for the cross-functional buzzword here. Seriously, though, go outside your department and get some of those options, too, even if they aren’t technically familiar with what you do.

You’ll find that a true sense of consensus will come if you get a wide range of data points from different sources, and then navigate what you hear to establish better, faster, and stronger plans.

It’s easier for everyone to “get on board” with a plan or a strategy if they feel like they have a stake in shaping it.

Truly innovative leaders don't aim for consensus, but for collaboration.


A version of this post originally appeared on Fast Company.

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