Forging consensus

LEADERSHIP is an unstable thing, constantly at risk of migrating toward the extremes; it either degenerates into highhanded decision-making or devolves into bureaucratic rule-by-committee. Whether at the apex of a state or within a small civic association, leadership poses, again and again, the same fundamental question: how to strike a balance between decisiveness and discussion?

That balance requires, above all, sensitivity and adaptability: sound leadership is an oscillation, within a spectrum going from solitary judgments to meetings of minds. When running an organization of any sort, there are moments when you must make up your own mind and push forth, and periods where consensus is in order. Doubting your instincts and seeking council is salutary; seeking input from others can be useful as a matter of principle, to draw on their creative thinking, preempt emerging problems, or build a sense of ownership. It should never, however, become an activity by default, used by managers to avoid making tough decisions. Talent resides in recognizing those crucial, and relatively rare, points in time that demand consultation—moments where you must pause and shift from forging ahead to forging consensus.

Consensus-building typically comes in during difficult, pivotal moments, making it not only especially challenging but also especially important. Indeed, all organizations see tensions and anxieties occasionally rise, putting to the test your ability, as a manager, to find solutions. Issues may be trivial, such as moaning over salaries, or more existential, when staff feel a loss of direction. Discontent, in one form or another, can easily cause misunderstandings, take personal forms, and generally put you on the defensive. This is precisely when leadership tends to migrate toward the extremes, through aggressive unilateral decision-making, perfunctory procedures delegating responsibility to where it doesn’t belong, or a combination of both.

While it is tempting to view such moments as pure setbacks, they can more constructively be viewed as an opportunity:

  • Palpable tension and anxiety, within an organization, is in many ways a good sign: it indicates that staff take their work seriously enough to care. A professional environment where no one worries or complains is, in fact, a cause for concern: it likely means staff are too intimidated or disabused to go out on a limb.
  • Such trepidation is also a vital warning. It virtually always reflects genuine issues the organization faces or is about to encounter. Although it is tempting to dismiss restlessness by pinning it on individuals deemed inadequate, it usually is a mistake to do so: their sentiments should be understood as symptomatic of deeper problems.
  • Defining the latter, however, requires (and constitutes) true leadership. Indeed, a frequent error is to expect the disgruntled to effectively analyze their sources of dissatisfaction, spell them out constructively, and formulate ideas to address them. It is because of the difficulties we all face in diagnosing, voicing and resolving our own malaise that leadership is warranted in the first place.
  • Apparent confusion, therefore, is an integral part of such moments when dialogue is needed. Staff may complain about something seemingly trivial, when in fact they are troubled by something else, more meaningful but elusive. There is little to be gained from firing the disgruntled, instating new policies and procedures, or blaming a broader context beyond your control, when the game is solving this riddle.

The exercise of leadership, in such events, consists in devising ad hoc ways of adequately diagnosing the problem, before deciding on appropriate remedies. This is a necessarily creative process. Depending on circumstances, it may entail multiplying one-on-one meetings; finding ways of getting genuine criticism to trickle up– something crucial very few managers successfully do; brainstorming issues collectively; seeking external council; questioning your managerial style, team structure, or business model; and combining any of the above. The way forward will come into focus through a mix of sensitive listening to others, solitary thinking and much explaining of how you understand both the problem and the solution.

This very process of recognizing the existence of a significant problem affecting your staff, establishing your commitment to resolving it, and initiating transparent communication around the issues, options and limitations, is the source of consensus, if and only if a decision is actually made. Dialogue should create a real opportunity for all concerned to speak at liberty or hold their peace, but any further dithering will erase what confidence was built. As a manager, you are expected to pull the trigger and move the organization forward, rather than stall on imperfect solutions. It is the quality of your listening and explaining that will determine the level of buy-in you will enjoy, not the length or formality of the process.

Once your vision is formed, it’s up to you to take the lead on implementation. To overcome an organization’s challenges, you definitely can’t go it alone. But precisely because you took a moment to stop, consult, put words on a confused disquiet, and hammer out a more collegial take on things, the chances are that you will be followed. People grumble first to be heard; second, to see you make that decision on whatever elusive issue was troubling them.

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Illustration credit: Thomas Rowlandson The village doctor besieg’d by Wikipedia and Wellcome Images / licensed by CC. 

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