‘Think Consensus is Good, Think Again!’

As an established leader, developing executive teams or organisations, and often when working in collaboration with other partners, a consensus is required to achieve set goals. The lubricant that makes the team, especially partnership actions successful is that consensus. However, lurking within, is a significant danger, and that is consensus inertia, sometimes known as ‘groupthink’!

Two people in a canoe on a lakeIn this article, I explore the notion of consensus inertia and offer four simple rules for either avoiding it or overcoming it.

Do you experience consensus inertia?

First described by Jerry B Harvey in his article ‘The Abilene Paradox’, consensus inertia strikes at the heart of great leadership because it erodes values; stifles critical thinking, limits creativity; enables undue influence of direction; and, allows inequity of action. Most commonly experienced due to a breakdown in group communication, consensus inertia happens when each member of a group mistakenly believes that their individual preferences are counter to the group’s and, therefore, do not raise objections, even when discussions are moving in a direction that they believe to be entirely unsound.

One of the greatest challenges to any leader is to ensure that all members of their team apply critical and independent thinking to the challenges they face together and to feel the freedom to express those views without fear of condemnation or reprisal. Leaders must also avoid the perils and limitations of ‘groupthink’ that can be a major contributory factor to poor business decisions. Effective leaders do this by following four simple rules:

1.They communicate vision and values in a compelling and inclusive way.

Values should fit with the team’s communication, both internally and externally. So, if you say that you are team-oriented where everyone counts, then a traditional ‘command and control’ style will challenge this. Reflecting on and ‘living’ the values of the team provides permission to team members to take responsibility for their individual thoughts and actions and not feel constrained to conform. It sets the boundaries and parameters for personal and group work and autonomy.

2. They revisit and refresh purpose, and the values underpinning that purpose.

Regularly taking your team back to its purpose and reflecting on the values that underpin that purpose is the best way to ensure that consensus is real rather than imagined or assumed. Why a focus on values? Because organisational values define the acceptable standards which govern the behaviour of individuals within an organisation, and this helps to limit contrary action.

 3. They confront dissonant activity.

Effective leaders ensure that they and other team members give feedback to those who don’t live out the vision of the team. They know that if people are allowed to live out different values then, over time, there is a clear danger that those values will usurp the desired values. More dynamic, dominant individuals within the team who are espousing different values are more than capable of usurping desired values and behaviours.

4. They periodically check out with feedback from partners.

Great leaders demonstrate courage, openness and are not risk averse! They will regularly ask those involved with their team what they think of its values? They will do this with those involved internally within an organisation and with its external partners – including clients, suppliers and other stakeholders. They will then act on that feedback.

What to do now?

Developing solid consensus in driving business decisions and in realising ambitions and goals is critical to success and a harmonious working climate. However, within the ever increasing noise and complexity of organisational life, it is so easy to lose sight of that outcome!

Avoid this by articulating your vision and values in a compelling and inclusive way; modelling your vision and values; inviting others to participate in your vision and values setting, and seeking feedback as to what others think of them!

Do you have a statement of values for your team? Is it a living expression of current, real values, or just an expression of past desires? When was the last time you reviewed the four simple rules to see how well you and your team are living the values? What other tips do you have? Please share your thoughts and comments.

This article repurposed from an original guest post was first published in Todd Nielsen’s Second International Leadership Blogathon in 2013 [http://www.toddnielsen.com/international-leadership-blogathon/the-2nd-international-leadership-blogathon-preview/].

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