CONFESSIONS OF A CONSENSUS-SEEKER
I used to think my ability to get everybody to agree was a strength. I have strong opinions, I’m competitive, and it’s not enough to have my opponent concede when debating a topic. I need them to agree with me — to believe what I believe. This served me well early in my career, and my fiery conviction and the resulting success allowed me to rise into leadership positions.
Honestly, even as a team lead this approach worked pretty well. Looking back, I think the turning point was when I became the manager of two teams. That’s when I no longer had the capacity to be “in it” with the team on every assignment. That’s when I hit a wall with my consensus-seeking.
The Deadliest Slide at the Playground
As a team lead, I did the best I could. Of course, I didn’t really know what I was doing and was mostly making it up as I went. That’s not to say I didn’t try or that I did a bad job. It’s just that I’m a learn-by-doing sort of person, so even though I’d read and done research on what it meant to be a good boss, it took some time and experience for concepts to set in.
The pattern continued as I moved into management. I wanted to be a “manager of the people” — to empower the team, and to give them a voice and sense of ownership. But they didn’t always agree among themselves about what needed to be done or how to do it. (Who’da guessed?) On top of that, I had my own opinions about what was best. This is where consensus-seeking started to be a problem.
The team would go on and on about a problem and then, just as they’d be coming to a conclusion, I’d weigh in with my 2 cents and reset the whole conversation. You know the big slide in the board game Chutes and Ladders? The one right toward the end that basically takes you back to the beginning? It was kinda like that.
And, because I needed that consensus, I’d keep the debate going as long as people continued to disagree. I just felt like, if we could all understand each other’s perspectives, we could find a solution we all agreed on.
I knew it was a problem. I could feel the team spinning, and we were spending more time coming up with plans than it would take to execute them. Feedback from the team provided clear supporting evidence in my performance reviews, too.
Could be more decisive. It’s good to listen, but sometimes the team just needs someone to choose. (paraphrasing)
Message received. I wasn’t surprised, though. I knew it was coming, but it still stung a little to be forced to acknowledge my shortcoming in a more official way.
Melancholy and the Infinite Debate
Analysis paralysis was certainly a key problem caused by my consensus-seeking. We’d talk and talk and talk about a topic or design, then reserve ourselves to continue the discussion in the next meeting. It was exhausting.
But, having no decision and pressure to make progress, the team would soldier on, with fatigue from the endless debate taking its toll. Even if it was my idea that “won,” it didn’t feel like winning. My effort to make everybody happy had done the opposite — everyone was miserable!
That gave way to the second major issue: lack of commitment. With so much discussion, people would lose track of what we were even trying to accomplish. Or, worse, they’d stop caring. I was mentally beating them into submission, and they just wanted it to end.
Team members would shake their heads and ask, “So, what are we doing?” They had no energy and just wanted to get on with it. It’s a real feelsbad moment to look into the defeated eyes of your team and explain that you’re just going to do the thing that you all talked about so long ago.
Can we all agree that consensus is horrible?
My a-ha moment came while reading Patrick Lencioni’s book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. The main character, Kathryn, is speaking and says the following:
“Consensus is horrible. I mean, if everyone really agrees on something and consensus comes about quickly and naturally, well that’s terrific. But that isn’t how it usually works, and so consensus becomes an attempt to please everyone.”
It feels dumb and obvious, but I literally stopped and thought, Oh no. That was it, that was my problem. I continued reading.
“…some teams get paralyzed by their need for complete agreement, and their inability to move beyond debate.”
Yep, that was us. I was worried that people would be upset by not having their idea picked, so instead, I chose to pummel them into having the same idea. Reading about my own behavior in the context of the book was reassuring, to know that the bad thing I was doing was prolific enough to be addressed in a novel about the bad things we do. Still, not a great feeling to know that I had stepped into a common pitfall.
I always tell my teams that I’d rather have a problem we know the solution to than one we don’t, though, and this was one of those cases.
In the same chapter, another character speaks up about “disagree and commit” which is a popular idea that’s been written and talked about by many people, including Jeff Bezos. The concept is simple: it’s okay to disagree, but once the decision is made, everyone commits to it.
Certainly, that’s the philosophy I need to embrace, I thought. The hard part about decision-making was the fear of being wrong. I needed consensus because, if we all agreed and were wrong, we’d be wrong together. I didn’t want to force my decision on the team to have it rubbed in my face later by bitter and spiteful colleagues.
Because they’d be bitter and spiteful… Right?
A Breathtaking Detour
Making decisions requires a constructive environment filled with trust and communication, and my consensus-seeking didn’t provide that. I felt like we needed to talk things through because people would be upset if we didn’t do it their way. And it wore them down. Instead of looking for the best solution, they were looking for a way out.
However, it turns people don’t need to get their way to be happy. They need to feel heard. Having a voice makes us feel safe, like we’re in control. We want to know that if we call out danger, the team will steer away from it. Similarly, if we know a safe path, the whole team benefits from taking it.
Imagine you have plans for dinner at a restaurant with a friend. You and your friend have many choices for how to get there. You can take highways or backroads. You can drive yourselves or take public transportation. You can go separately or together. There are a few tradeoffs with each decision, but for the most part, they’re inconsequential.
Now, let’s say you know about some construction on one of the roads. You tell your friend to avoid that route because of significant delays, but they take it anyway and show up super late. You’d probably be upset, right?
Conversely, if they show up on time, you probably don’t care which specific path they took to get there. Maybe the same construction takes them through a scenic part of town, so your friend left early to enjoy it. You wouldn’t mind that they ignored your advice. It wouldn’t prevent you from enjoying each other’s company and having a good time — it might even give you something to talk about!
It’s the same with most team decisions. If you can agree on what you’re trying to accomplish, listen to everybody’s input, and make a reasonable decision, it doesn’t usually matter which specific path is chosen. What matters is that you get to where you’re going.
The Destination vs. The Journey
We’ve all heard the popular adage about road trips: it’s about the journey, not the destination. The idea is that the experiences you’ll have on the way to your destination will outweigh the ones you’ll have once you arrive. The point of these sorts of trips is usually to have experiences, and the journey is long and thus provides many experiences, so there’s truth to the statement.
When you have several options to choose from, you’ll often find yourself in one of two buckets. Choices will be equal or have tradeoffs. When all things are equal, it’s like meeting your friend at a restaurant. It probably doesn’t matter. Pick and move on. Most decisions have tradeoffs with multiple factors being influenced to different degrees, though, and that’s what makes them so tricky.
The reason they’re difficult is that people have different values. The best decision for me is different than the best decision for someone else, and neither of us is wrong — we just have different values. For example, one of us may value speed to market whereas the other values robustness of features. This is sort of a destination-vs-journeyquestion all in itself! Is it better to reach your destination quickly to benefit from more time or go a bit slower and arrive more prepared?
The question to ask yourself is, what are you trying to accomplish? This is why it’s so important for leaders and stakeholders to set goals and priorities: to enable the team to make decisions.
But, even if all that fails, there’s some good news. In the absence of a clear winner, you’re somewhat back to the all-things-equal scenario. There is no right or wrong when the deciding factor is subjectivity, so choose and move on.
The only losing move is not to choose.
As a former consensus-seeker, I hope I’ve said enough to convince you — to make you believe — that consensus-seeking is bad.
The two major problems with consensus-seeking are time lost and lack of commitment. You sacrifice time with endless discussion, and with no decision, there’s nothing to commit to.
For that reason, any decision is better than no decision, even if it proves to be the wrong choice. Being wrong is often more efficient than trying to ensure you’re right, and conducting marathon debates won’t save you from mistakes, anyway.
Consensus is painful, and you don’t need it. What you do need is commitment. Seeking consensus will drain energy and morale whereas listening and incorporating feedback will build trust. When the team trusts you, they’ll support your decisions, and that’s how you get commitment.
Energy saved by skipping analysis paralysis now gets applied toward the commitment, and a positive cycle begins. Commitment and energy lead to results. Results earn trust and influence, which then get applied to the next round of decisions.
Making decisions is more important than the decisions themselves. Know what you’re trying to achieve, listen to your team, and make a decision. Everyone will be happier and more productive for it.
This article was originally published in The Ascent on January 5, 2021.