Crises in Consensus


The other morning, a friend was talking about a frustrating committee experience. He had sent out an email the prior evening and received 13 responses from committee members.

A flurry of activity, none of which, unfortunately, actually moved the issue forward.

The problem, he explained, is that this committee was to operate by consensus, but lacked a common commitment to (or understanding of) the end goal.

Which led to a discussion of the pitfalls of consensus.

Mind you, I prefer consensus to contention. But I also favor initiative over inaction. Yet it seems that sometimes the cloak of consensus is drawn to defend a tendency toward indecision.

It can take one of several forms.
  1. Lack of clarity or agreement about the end goal. It's virtually impossible to reach consensus if you're not heading in the same direction. What's worse is misdirection … an intentional misinterpretation or misunderstanding about where the group is going.
  2. "I don't want to offend anyone." A noble objective. But if the environment doesn't allow open communication – i.e., room to assert your opinion and/or to disagree with that of someone else –  you're almost as hopelessly lost as if you don't know where you're going.
  3. Failure to own a personal agenda. Similarly, how many hours have been lost to the person unwilling to be forthright with their own opinion (or agenda…or objective), but still intent on affecting the direction of the group?
  4.  Too mired down in the details. When a committee begins to micromanage, it's very difficult to pull it back up to a strategic perspective. So many of us are more comfortable dealing with readily definable tasks … hands-on … something with a beginning, middle and end. That longer range perspective is typically a much tougher assignment!
  5. "I'm here to provide input; it's not a working position." Again, for those who would like to have a voice but don't want to accept responsibility, my advice is, "Stay home … and let those of us committed enough to make a difference try do so."

So, what happens when a committee, organization or other group starts sliding down this slope?

"It's a morass," our coffee klatch agreed, "a waste time. You're unlikely to get anything done."

It's a situation that calls for leadership.

And the fact is, sometimes leadership is not the consensus solution!