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When Consensus is a Bad Way to Decide

Alex Alexander

I’ve been involved in a lot of group decision-making over the years. The groups usually consisted of conscientious people working hard to achieve a consensus. When they reached consensus, they adopted it as the will of the group.

I used to believe in this approach, although I remember having some misgivings. Now that I have been studying the workings of the mind, I understand my misgivings and have reached the conclusion that consensus — mere agreement among the members of a group — is a not the best way to make decisions.

Convergence is better. Let me explain.

Consensus is simply the agreement of a group of people about a problem, a strategy, a decision … whatever. Convergence is also agreement, but agreement of a different sort. I’ll talk about consensus first because we’re all familiar with it.

Consensus is about persuasion and compromise, not right or wrong, not what works best. Consensus is about human interactions, which are mainly about emotions, jumping to conclusions, and negotiation, and may or may not include facts and analysis. Consensus is about compromise, and compromise means that someone, maybe everyone, has to set aside an idea that may have value in order to satisfy the group, or the leader of the group.

Consensus makes people feel like they’ve done their jobs because they’ve reached an acceptable conclusion, a workable conclusion, but not necessarily the best conclusion. It also spreads the blame when things go wrong. “Not my fault. It was a group decision.” Or, “I had to go along with it or I would have dragged down the whole group.” Consensus is a shortcut, which, not always but often, falls short of right action and settles for acceptable action.

Superficially, consensus sounds like a good thing. It allows us to come to conclusions, to get along, to respect each other and to feel good when we have to give up an idea we believe for the sake of moving things forward.

Those seem like good things. But conclusions aren’t always the right conclusions, and getting along and feeling good have little to do with getting the best results.

Convergence, on the other hand, also leads to agreement, but agreement of a more productive kind because it’s based on facts and rationality, not emotions, and not all those messy human dynamics like persuasion, power plays, intimidation, going along to get along, deception or even pleading and ingratiation.

When ideas and opinions are in conflict, the conflict is resolved, not by negotiation or persuasion or intimidation but by fact-finding and analysis. Convergence is agreement based on the pursuit of facts and accuracy in a sincere attempt to discover truth and get the best results.

Let me switch gears for a moment. Have you ever heard the term “groupthink”? It’s a negative term that describes the tendency of people to accept an idea due to the influence of those around them rather than the validity of the idea.

Groupthink is known to stifle creativity, suffocate independent thinking and settle on the ideas that are most acceptable to most of the people in the group, whether or not they’re the best ideas. Groupthink can move you from excellence to mediocrity because it’s the “middle ground” that gathers the most votes. Committees are notorious for groupthink, as are other collections of people, like clubs, gangs, work teams, political parties, families and boards of directors.

The scientists who study such things have noted that groupthink leads to consensus, and it happens because groups of people tend to gravitate to the ideas of the people who speak up in the group, the ones who speak early and with confidence.

In an important book with a silly-sounding title, The Invisible Gorilla and Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us, cognitive scientists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons have this to say about their research of group dynamics: “How did dominant individuals become the group leaders? The answer is almost absurdly simple: They spoke first. For 94 percent of the problems, the group’s final answer was the first answer anyone suggested, and people with dominant personalities just tend to speak first and most forcefully.”

They went on to say, “…group leaders proved to be no more competent than anyone else. They became leaders by force of personality rather than strength of ability.”

Consensus is agreement, nothing more. It provides no assurance of accuracy, correctness or feasibility. It’s only a valid decision-making process if agreement is more important than results.

What’s the better way? Forget consensus; try convergence, even if you have to grind it out the hard way. It may take longer. It may produce some disagreement and even some conflict, but disagreement and conflict, if done with mutual respect, open minds and a genuine desire for truth, lead to productive debate, deeper understanding and right action.

Here are some suggestions to help a group converge on the right conclusions, not merely the agreeable conclusions:

1. Get the commitment of the group, especially the group leader, to find the right decision, not settle for consensus. And make sure that the group’s leader is committed to getting the best thinking from everyone, even those who are normally reluctant to speak. Be willing to listen, listen, listen … and then listen some more.

2. Get individual thoughts first, before they’ve been influenced by the group. Ask each person, individually, to submit his or her ideas before the group discussion starts.

3. Require the group to consider all points of view. This means that when you hear an idea, you fully consider all the pros and cons — don’t just cherry-pick whatever supports your position.

4. Don’t give up an idea because it’s unpopular. Give it up because it’s wrong and you’re sure it’s wrong. Even outlandish ideas can have a grain of truth that’s worth exploring.

5. Don’t jump to conclusions … dig for facts, and when you’ve gotten them, believe them, even when they conflict with what you previously thought you knew. When you can’t get all of the facts, make sure your assumptions have the most solid possible foundation.

Consensus has value but right action has greater value. With the convergence approach, you’re far more likely to get right action. Dedication to right action, and the willingness to engage in the sometimes messy, sometimes uncomfortable process of convergence, can pay off big.


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