Ensure Consensus Isn’t Just Pseudo-Consensus

Posted by Kristin Arnold on August 6, 2010

Your team has discussed the various options and it appears there is a general agreement in the room.  The team leader suggests that if no one objects, the team agrees and you have  consensus.  Or do you?

Consensus means that everyone lives with the decision AND supports it upon implementation.  By using the “silence implies agreement” rule, you might have  consensus, but then again, you might not.  Some common pitfalls:

Guessed Incorrectly.  By listening to the discussion, reading the body language and making some inferences, the team leader is making a decision for all to abide by.  Unfortunately, the team leader might be wrong and is asking people to have the courage and visibly object to the decision.

Power Play.  Sometimes the team leader is intentionally pushing the decision through and doesn’t want to hear any objections.  In reality, the team leader may achieve “pseudo-consensus” in the meeting, but will face resistance or sabotage during implementation.

Too Rushed.  In the interest of time, the team pushes on without checking for agreement.  Although, there will always be time to reemphasize and rework the issue when it becomes apparent the team is not committed to the decision.

No Voice.  Quieter members certainly aren’t going to voice their opinions and extraverted members may venture a comment or two without trying to rock the boat.  Unless the team leader is attuned to these subtle nuances, these unvocalized objections indicate a lack of consensus.

Ask Me Later.  When the “silence implies agreement” rule is invoked, people simply reserve the right to object later.  They don’t commit to the decision right then and there.  Instead, they agree that they don’t object RIGHT NOW.

If your team is a victim of “pseudo-consensus,” take a moment to go around the room and ask each team member’s opinion.

Sarah Sheard, a systems engineering expert, found two things happen when you poll your team members:

  1. Build a Better Solution.  Those who have reservations state the reservations, which they might not do if silence were an option.   Often, their reservations change the whole direction of the group.  Either they think of something no one else has, and thereby add to the quality of the product, or they have a real problem with it which the group has to address to ensure buy-in.
  2. Internal Buy-in.  If a team member is required to respond to a request for buy-in, they have to make a commitment to the decision internally.  If you have to say publicly “yes”, “no” or “I can live with it” (note, you can use a quick thumbs up, thumbs down or thumbs sideways for quick polling), then you actually decide at that point that your decision is what you say it is.  Otherwise, you might reserve judgment.

A quick poll of the participants can improve the quality of the decision, ensure all team members are heard and help them make an internal commitment to the decision.

Question:  Are you getting real consensus from your team members?

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