Why too much consensus is bad for you

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consensusTechnology is changing all aspects of how people work and live, with the inevitable result being constant and rapid change in the workplace.

It’s commonly accepted that organisational change and transformation requires culture change to support and sustain it.

The question that naturally follows is: what type of culture does the organisation need?

Leaders often think the sign of a healthy culture is that agreements are reached easily and there is collegiality, little dissent or difference of opinions. It’s the fallacy of ‘consensus rules’.

In fact, too much consensus can be unhealthy. When team members are unwilling to challenge or disagree with each other it’s a warning sign for leaders that something is wrong.

Teams need to be able to robustly discuss and disagree as part of a healthy decision making process. Otherwise they are prone to bias, error and group-think.

ANU Professor, Andrew Hopkins, has written extensively on risk failures, and the dangers of consensus decision making. As an expert in this field he’s found that groups are often more inclined to make riskier decisions than individuals. This is because of the process of de-individualisation.

How this plays out is that because there are many people responsible for the decision, the individual feels as though they are not personally responsible for it. They are therefore more likely to take risks, and can be persuaded by the group to go against their own values.

He says: “Everyone is responsible for the decision which means, in turn, that no one person feels personally responsible.  The end result is non-responsible decision making”.

This is harder to avoid in an environment where debate is curtailed or silenced, or where leaders fall into the trap of taking the path of least resistance and making decisions that are easy and popular, rather than difficult.

For leaders facing unchartered territory relying on what they have always done before and using default thinking patterns is fraught with danger.

Complex and adaptive problems are not solved by the ‘quick fix’, nor are they solved by relying on patterns of learned behaviour.

This is because we don’t make decisions on facts alone.

Our brain filters information – discarding information that doesn’t fit with its world view.  It also takes ‘mental short cuts’ as it is trying to conserve energy and get to a decision about what to do in the fastest possible way.

To mitigate these inbuilt challenges, leaders need to be encouraged to embrace the uncertainty that arises during times of change, and constantly seek out new ideas and input from different people.

This involves being naturally curious and approaching the uncertainty as a challenge to solve, not as a barrier to avoid.

Similarly, in such a culture, teams are encouraged to engage in spirited conversations – rather than silent, shallow or stunted conversations that don’t advance the decision making process.

Spirited conversations create energy, spark new ideas, help people think more clearly about the position they hold, and open the room to different solutions.

It involves lots of questions, different perspectives being tabled and heard, and all participants being willing to look at issues from multiple angles.

Over time, this creates cultural norms where ideas are shared and challenged in the spirit of achieving a better and more robust decisions; which is a necessary pre-cursor for sustained and successful organisational change transformation.

So what debate will you start today?

Getting you ready for tomorrow, today. 

Michelle Gibbings is a change leadership and career expert and founder of Change Meridian.  Michelle works with global leaders and teams to help them get fit for the future of work. She is the Author of ‘Step Up: How to Build Your Influence at Work’ and ‘Career Leap: How to Reinvent and Liberate your Career’. 

For more information: www.michellegibbings.com or contact [email protected].