In a recent blog, Stop scheduling meetings without the 3Hs and 5Ps, I detailed practical solutions to increase meeting quality and decrease costs. As a reminder, poorly planned and facilitated meetings lead to loss of productivity, decreased employee engagement and lots of money out the window.

In this post, I’ll continue the meetings series and discuss why aiming for consensus in group decision-making is wasteful and potentially detrimental and why we should aim to get the group’s commitment instead. It will allow teams to negotiate decision-making faster and reduce conflict even in big chaotic groups.

The tech industry is going through changes, causing many startups to resort to significant layoffs to preserve cash flow. Unsurprisingly, this advice comes directly from the source of funds. VC advise executives to Adapt to Endure, which includes aligning the team and asking for their commitment. Leaving aside how humanely these layoffs were executed, the point VCs are making is that, in times of trouble, decisiveness helps maintain focus and reduces some of the cost of decisions. You can read more about this in Sequoia’s deck.

What do others think about consensus?

‘You and your colleague vehemently disagree on something. So, what do you do?’

I asked this question as an exercise, and most of the answers I got were along the lines of ‘I’ll explain my reasons logically and try to convince the other one to see my point of view’

So, I asked again, ‘Say that the disagreement hasn’t been solved. What now?’ I kept asking this a few times until there were no more new answers.

To understand consensus vs commitment, we need to understand why disagreements happen in the first place.

The three levels of disagreement

There are three levels of disagreement and three approaches to solving them.

Moreover, if you use a Level 1 or 2 approach to solve a Level 3 disagreement, you’re likely to fail.

Level 1: Lack of shared information

At this level, people disagree because they have not heard or understood each other’s alternative and the reasons for proposing it. This type of disagreement comes from an assumed understanding of what the other person is saying or meaning. It’s one of the most common reasons why conflicts happen, and luckily, it has a fairly straightforward solution.

A level 1 solution requires participants to slow down the conversation to encourage careful listening and comprehension. The techniques that can be used once this happens are:

  1. Probing: going deeper into each participant’s point of view, trying to empathise with their perspective. For example, ‘Can we walk through this step by step?’
  2. Clarifying: assumptions, especially about intent, for example, ‘It sounds to me that what you’re saying is that… Is this correct?’
  3. Acknowledging: the differences, for example, ‘That’s a fair point.’
  4. Seeking alternatives: ‘Let’s look at what other options you have considered.’
Level 2: Different values or experiences

People have fully heard and understood one another at this level, but they have had different experiences and hold different values. As a result, they strongly prefer one point of view over the other. A good example is political opinions like Conservatives vs Labourists.

A level 2 solution is more challenging but not impossible as it requires participants to identify their most important underlying values. This can be accomplished by asking the right questions, ‘Why is this so important to you?’ or ‘What do you want the most out of it?’ Again, the goal is to focus on the most critical needs, not all.

Once there’s a shared understanding, the parties can work together to craft alternatives that combine their values and satisfy the most essential needs of each.

Level 3: External factors

This level of disagreement is the hardest to unpack and solve. The disagreement is likely based on factors unrelated to alternatives or common ground. Arguments are based on personalities, history or external factors. Most often than not, the disagreement is not even related to the discussion!

Applying a Level 1 or 2 solution, analysing facts or focusing on the issue itself is likely to fail. Most of these disagreements are based on subconscious factors and even irrational ones. People in these situations don’t seem to offer logical explanations and show little or no interest in resolving the disagreement or convincing the other parties. I’m sure you’ve met someone who just rubbed you the wrong way or did something detrimental to you on purpose, and it’s hard to agree with them subsequently.

A level 3 solution is mediation via a higher source of resolution, someone who can hear all the parties and has the authority to guide or make a final decision. Real-life examples include judges and marriage counsellors. When that happens during a meeting, it’s best to indicate to the group that you don’t believe that the issue can be solved then and there and seek agreement to go together to a higher source.

Having understood the roots of disagreement, we can now examine consensus vs commitment more clearly.

Consensus vs Commitment

Consensus takes a long time to achieve or cannot be reached at all.

Consensus is achieved when everyone involved with a decision believes that a particular solution is the best solution. This implies that the debate must continue until they all convince one another.

Let’s say two people debate a complex issue until they reach a consensus on every aspect of it, and that takes roughly two days. If we add a third person to the mix, how many more days will it take until all three of them agree? Maybe three or four days? Maybe more? What if we have a group of four or five people? What if the issue is even more complex, with multiple aspects?

Expecting consensus can have a staggering effect not only on productivity but also on human energy. But unfortunately, some folks with good ideas just give up because not everyone is inclined to debate until they drop dead. This happens particularly to women and minorities, who may be marginalised in meetings by unconscious biases.

At the opposite poles, rapid consensus and no healthy debate of alternatives mean that mediocre solutions are happily and hastily agreed upon by everyone, just to avoid what they perceive as ‘conflict’.

When individuals disagree

Let’s go back to the example of a group decision and several proposed solutions. One or two people might believe that the first solution is the best solution in every aspect. One or two might tolerate the first solution but prefer the second one. After listening to their peers, they understand why some desire the first solution, and although they still don’t particularly want it, they conclude that they can certainly live with it. 

One or two might fully disagree with the first two solutions and propose a third, but after more discussion, they find some common points they could support. Commitment is achieved when, despite different views and preferences, all the group members agree to fully support the first solution through the implementation.

If someone asks them afterwards, ‘Do you think this is the best solution there can be?’, their answer might be along the lines of:

‘If it were up to just me to make this decision, I would change a few things. But for the success of my team/organisation, we need a plan that everyone can back. I believe this plan is sound, and I’ll give it my full support.’

‘If I were to make this decision on my own, I would not go in that direction. However, I had the opportunity to express my thoughts, and people have taken the time to understand my view.

And though I haven’t been able to move the majority to my position, I believe I have been heard, and my needs have been considered.

I understood the alternatives, and I believe the proposed solution is reasonable. Therefore, I am willing to accept the group’s decision and support them in implementing it.’

Of course, if people are not heard and understood and their needs have not been considered, there can’t be any commitment. And vice-versa, saying that you’ll support a plan but not actually do it, or worse, sabotage it to prove a point, is also not genuine commitment.

If everything else fails

Here’s a simple algorithm to push for commitment when the group is stuck. Once a solution has been proposed, every person holds up between one and five fingers, indicating their level of support on a count of three. The numbers show:

  • 5 – strongly agree
  • 4 – agree
  • 3 – can see benefits and disadvantages but are willing to go with the majority
  • 2 – disagree
  • 1 – strongly disagree and can’t accept
Round 1:

If everyone holds 3, 4, or 5 fingers, commitment has been reached, and the solution is accepted.

If there are 2s and 1s, those people are given the opportunity to explain their vote and make recommendations to change the option. The leader or the originator of the solution can either accept the recommendation and change the solution or leave it as-is and explain why. If the solution is changed, a new first round of voting is triggered. If the solution remains, the second round starts.

Round 2:

If everyone shows 2, 3, 4 or 5 fingers, commitment has been reached, and the solution is accepted. Those who give a 2 in this round are now more likely to say ‘I still disagree and I want to be on record with that, but if it’s the will of the majority, I won’t be the blocker’.

If there are any 1s, those people are again given the opportunity to recommend alternative solutions, and the leader of the meeting has the option to change or maintain their position. If the solution is changed, a new first round of voting is triggered. If the solution remains, the final round starts.

Round 3 (final):

In this round, the decision is made by the majority supporting the initial solution.

The strength of this technique is actually in giving the group the time and space to listen carefully, twice or thrice or as many times necessary. It also prevents a solution from being discarded by a few vocal people. After everyone is heard well enough, the will of the group generally prevails.

Decision-making theory and conflict resolution are fascinating topics with an army of research behind it. It’s funny how most of us like to believe that we’re good decision-makers when in fact, we’re mostly operating on heuristics. If you’re curious, check out my previous post about how asynchronous communication can improve decision-making.

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