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Contesting Consensus Decisions


Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Crucial Conversations

QDear Crucial Skills,

“Consensus” is just a buzzword in our organization. We talk about making consensus decisions, but what really happens is that after everyone has shared input to the pool of meaning, the senior manager will force his view as the only solution. The rest of the team will then defer because they know that the management will have the last say anyway.

How do we begin to address this crucial conversation?

False consensus

A Dear False consensus,

My opinion on this topic may surprise you. But I believe if you’ll endure the surprise, there will be hope at the other side.

Here’s the surprise: The best thing you can do is to persuade your leaders to stop promoting consensus.

At least most of the time.

Consensus decision making is the least efficient of all available methods and should only be used in very specific circumstances. For example, we suggest you limit consensus decisions to times when:

  • the data needed to make a decision is dispersed across many people
  • the consequences of a less-than-perfect decision are great
  • the need for buy-in is as important as the need for speed

When all of these conditions align, you’d do well to consider going for consensus. But under most other circumstances, consensus bogs things down and yields less value than the trouble it requires.

For example, I’ve been told you can get a remarkably accurate estimate of the room temperature by gathering thirty people, asking them to make their best guess at the temperature, then averaging all the guesses. Typically this method will get you within 1/10 of 1 percent of the true temperature. Amazing, isn’t it?

And yet, why would you want to do this when one person with a cheap thermometer will get a good enough result?

In fact, in the most effective organizations, the vast majority of decisions are “command”—meaning a specialist whose job it is and who is well trained to make a decision just does so autonomously. A few decisions are “consult”—meaning one or more decision-makers gather input from others then make the decision on their own.

Now to your situation. Your organization appears to have two problems:

1. The leaders are using a “consult” process but calling it “consensus.”
2. Your leaders misunderstand when a consensus process is truly needed.

So what crucial conversation should you hold—and how should you approach it?

I suggest you find a couple of highly respected leaders with whom you have a reasonable relationship and start the discussion one on one. Make it safe for them by avoiding the self-righteous approach many would take in your circumstances. It would be easy to be disrespectful of your leaders by labeling the behavior you see as hypocritical or dishonest. It’s likely they don’t realize how their actions are being seen. Or they may feel caught in the trap of wanting to show respect for others’ ideas while trying to move business along at a reasonable pace. In any case, you can communicate respect and establish mutual purpose by beginning your crucial conversation with a statement like,

“I’ve been watching how we make decisions here. The leaders seem to think we need to make lots of decisions by consensus. I worry this could bog things down and add little value. And then when we really need consensus, the leaders are frustrated with non-value added input, and in their haste to get on with it, come across as disingenuous. Could I share some examples of where I think we might want to back off of consensus completely—and others where we might want to use it, but use it better?”

If you approach your leaders with a goal of trying to support them in getting decisions made in the most appropriate way, they’ll likely be open to your input. If they think you’re just going to guilt trip them into slowing everything down until everyone feels good—then in essence you’ll be asking them to abdicate leadership.

Hopefully your crucial conversation will help restore trust in your leaders.

Best wishes,

Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for business performance. For thirty years, Joseph has delivered engaging keynotes at major conferences including the HSM World Business Forum at Radio City Music Hall. Joseph’s work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500.

The ideas expressd in this article are base on the skills and principles taught in Crucial Conversations. Learn more about Crucial Conversations

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