Death by Consensus and Other Common Misconceptions About Our Work

Matt Beane

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Last week, I was on the phone with one of you - a subscriber to Fundamental Change.

We were talking about connecting her multinational organization with ours, and she felt her organization would benefit greatly from the work we do - BUT. . .

She said there would be a clash. In a culture filled with “doers, " in an organization where there was enormous pressure to make decisions quickly and decisively, she felt we'd get pushback that our approach was too “open" and too slow.

Every organization we've worked with has had this clash with our approach. People often quickly - and incorrectly - assume that using our approach means:

-Sharing your own opinions and asserting authority are BAD, while
-Asking others for their views and making decisions by consensus are GOOD.

People appropriately resist these assumptions because they feel like they'd be tripping over themselves to be nice, to play fair, and to “listen to everybody's feelings" (preferably pronounced FEE-lings in a sing-songy voice). They're concerned that this kind of conversation would take way too long, and that people would end up thinking they have input when they really don't.

We've been changing the way we talk about our work to address this, and it seems to be helping a great deal. I also think, no matter what we do, people will continue to make these assumptions.

Here's how we talk about our work now:

-Our approach does not require consensus. Consensus is the best way we know how to generate high levels of commitment to decisions, but that's not always appropriate or desirable. Sometimes it's more effective to say things like “. . . and, as your manager, I reserve the right to make the call on this if we can't figure it out together in an hour. " -As a formal leader you have an obligation to be transparent about your views and you have an obligation to appropriately exercise your authority, particularly when your team is unable to make an informed choice or when all interests cannot be met.

While it is usually more productive to genuinely ask people for their reactions and input before a decision, sometimes we think it's a bad idea. (To illustrate this, we ask people to imagine a firefighting captain saying “Ok, so I think we should axe down that door and run through it so that we don't get crushed in a few seconds by burning debris. What do you all think of my idea?") We think you're being effective as long as you're curious about others’ reactions and information and invite it at some point, while explaining your reasoning for waiting.

What do you think about this? Does it resonate? Does it not? Please share your thoughts with your colleagues at the Mutual Learning Action Group.

© 2005 Matt Beane

Matt Beane is an associate with Roger Schwarz & Associates and co-authored a chapter of the recently published “Skilled Facilitator Fieldbook: Tips, Tools, and Tested Methods for Consultants, Facilitators, Managers, Trainers, and Coaches, " available on and via other quality booksellers.

This article was originally published in Fundamental Change, Roger Schwarz & Associates’ free, monthly ezine. You can subscribe at:

In exchange for subscribing, you'll receive a link to a free . pdf copy of “Holding Risky Conversations, " a chapter from our recently-published fieldbook.

We write Fundamental Change to help you create workplaces and communities that are simultaneously highly effective and that improve the quality of life.

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* Address issues important to you as practitioners and leaders * Share client examples and case studies * Offer tips and tools for challenging situations * Offer resources to help you become more effective.


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