Have you ever been in a meeting where everyone seems to agree to a strategy or new direction a little too quickly?
Maybe people just want the meeting to end (so they can get on with meeting their abundant deadlines). Or perhaps everyone decided today was the day to appease the boss. It could even be that the idea presented is perfect as-is (however unlikely that may be).
But regardless of the motivation, the result is the same: Greenlighting an approach that hasn’t received the kind of strategic input and thinking needed to succeed.
The root of the problem is the distinction between what it means to arrive at a consensus versus simply agreeing. And it can become a thorny issue in organizations of all sizes.
What is Consensus Building?
We define consensus building as:
A process to arrive at a decision where all participants or stakeholders provide input and insights that reflect their unique experiences and perspectives, which are then taken into consideration as part of a final decision.
Let’s be honest: Consensus building is not easy. It takes intentional work, including preparation, facilitation and follow up. For an example of how difficult consensus building can be, just look at the challenges among governments seeking consensus on how to handle climate change.
What Does it Take to Arrive at a Consensus?
By this definition, to arrive at a consensus you need a few key ingredients:
- A group dynamic where participants’ feel that their ideas will be considered as part of the decision-making process
- A clear decision-making process and timeframe that allows for participants’ input to be integrated before a final decision is made
- A space where participants feel comfortable sharing their ideas without being railroaded, ignored, or otherwise penalized
As we’ve shared before when exploring how to facilitate consensus building conversations:
Do you remember your mama saying, “It’s not what you said it’s HOW you said it?” As it turns out, it really is WHAT you say and HOW you say it. Likewise, it is equally important to HEAR what others are saying and how they say it.
Arriving at a consensus requires listening as much as speaking. Staff members participating in a consensus-building conversation will have already been listening to the signals about the process that have already been conveyed in both words and actions.
Which means your team’s ability to arrive at a true consensus starts long before the consensus-building meeting.
What Can Prevent Your Team from Arriving at a Consensus?
- Overworked Staff: An exhausted and overwhelmed team knows that the fastest way to end a meeting is to agree and move on. Especially when it comes to managers, nonprofits often expect leaders to not only strategize about the work and manage other people doing the work, but to do the work themselves. The result is staff who are too burnt out to muster the kind of thoughtful input needed to arrive at a consensus as part of a rigorous conversation.
- Leadership Style: How an executive director leads an organization—or how a department head leads their team—can have huge ramifications for whether and how staff members engage in a thoughtful conversation. For example, is there a history of leadership having made decisions in advance and only trotting out the plan for input after everything is finalized? Is showing people how their ideas have concretely impacted outcomes a standard practice in your organization? If people don’t believe their input will be considered, then will be reluctant to bother sharing.
- Founder’s Syndrome: We’ve all seen founder’s syndrome in action at some point. An organization’s founder—or any leader who’s played a central role in keeping an organization going through tough times—can display symptoms. Most are about maintaining tight control, such as micromanaging, committing the organization to new initiatives without consulting the board or staff, and encouraging internal political alliances and backroom deals outside of transparent decision-making processes. As you can imagine, none of these behaviors create an environment where stakeholders see value in putting much effort into real consensus building.
- Unclear Roles: If people are uncertain about what roles they are expected to play in the conversation—much less in the organization overall—they may be unlikely to speak up. Especially in a group that includes both more senior and more junior staff, some team members may feel uncomfortable sharing contrary ideas. That’s why it’s important to create ground rules about participation—such as making clear that those with different opinions won’t be penalized. Just as important, though, is enforcing those ground rules even after the consensus building conversation is over.
Prepare Your Team for True Consensus Building with Strategic Planning
One of the best examples of dynamic consensus building in action is the strategic planning process.
Strategic planning brings together board and staff leadership, usually in a retreat format, to collectively set a future path for the organization. A skilled facilitator will ensure that everyone feels comfortable participating and demonstrate effective consensus building conversations in action. Even better is that at the end of the process your team will be deeply invested in the strategic plan they helped co-create. Which means they’ll be ready to roll up their sleeves and get to work.
So if you’re ready to encourage real consensus building—and take your organizational strategy to the next level—it’s never too early or too late to invest in a strategic plan. There’s no better way to get a jumpstart on arriving at a productive, honest, and strategic consensus.