Consensus Based Organizational Behavior; Committees without a Chairperson

"To me, consensus seems to be the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies. So it is something in which no one believes and to which no one objects." Margaret Thatcher

My experiences in organizations of all sizes indicate that there is an almost universal organizational yearning for everyone to "get along" in all that is done.  For leaders this usually means that every, or most, problems are resolved at levels below them by employees working together and achieving consensus on solutions.  In some cases this is fine.

Straightforward challenges can have well defined solutions around which general agreement can be made.  But for serious matters at the highest levels of large organizations, the challenges, let alone solutions, are rarely straightforward.  Problems at this level are complex, difficult, mysterious, and require gut wrenching choices, if properly addressed.  It's at this level where consensus based organizational behavior breaks down and indeed causes much damage.

The effects of a consensus based organizational culture:

  • Leaders rely on the group to intuitively understand or even develop their own comprehension of the problem(s) to be solved. A clear understanding of leader intent is rarely the starting point.
  • Outcomes are a product of protecting personal relationships/interests and minimizing the possibility of creating friction with a future boss or influencer.
  • Discussions and outcomes that pose the possibility of disagreement are avoided because participants know that their personal equities are influenced by others in the group.
  • Employees have trouble recognizing that each of them works directly for their boss, whose concerns and equities should be principal in their focus. Other influence holders and influences displace or dilute the primary relationship between direct report employees and their leaders.
  • IPT representatives minimize the impact of deliberations on their office rather than maximizing broader organizational benefits.
  • There is little or no informed debate or discussion.
  • Innovation, adaptation, critical thinking, and advocacy are discouraged; even punished.
  • Creativity is suppressed and cannot be actualized in concrete ways; by changing things to improve the organization.
  • Outspoken personalities and outright bullying can dominate collaboration.
  • Everyone has a veto, knows it, and feels empowered to exercise it.
  • Organizational initiatives and processes can and do stop altogether when a single party refuses to act.
  • It can be difficult to determine if a decision or outcome was reached at all. Or by whom, and under what authority.
  • There is no final responsibility or accountability for the outcome.
  • There are minimal or no sustainment of outcomes.
  • There are no issue adjudication or problem solving processes that review options and selects the best choice(s) for the organization.
  • There are no decision support processes that perform due diligence and integrates staff work to recommend the best option(s) to decision makers.
  • Ad hoc problem solving bodies are employed to deal with symptoms instead of the root causes of problems. Usually in the aftermath of an organizational crisis.
  • People simply refuse to participate in organizational collaboration by not showing up for planning sessions and meetings.
  • Decisions are made to accommodate or work around the personalities involved instead of doing what is best for the organization.
  • Internal organizational communications can be crippled and substantially "softened", made intentionally less precise, less fact based, and less results-oriented so as not to provoke challenges or friction.  Stovepipes are reinforced when people don't share basic information for fear of triggering unfavorable responses from future influencers. 
  • These behaviors originate at the top and propagate to lower levels.
  • Outputs are the “lowest common denominator” outcome on which all can agree.
  • The status quo usually prevails.

I see this dynamic in academia, local, state, federal government, and not-for-profit organizations almost every day. It's a crippling problem that only leaders can solve.

"A consensus means that everyone agrees to say collectively what no one believes individually." Abba Eban

Keith Stalder, #59

Copyright © 2015 Keith Stalder & Associates, LLC. All rights reserved.

Keith Stalder has over 40 years of leadership experience in organizations from the very large and established to small technology start ups and everything in between. With a broad and deep appreciation for, and understanding of, the fundamental challenges of organizations and businesses, both in government and the private sectors, his passion is to help all organizations become all that they aspire to. He is the founder of Keith Stalder and Associates, LLC, a company dedicated to advancing organizational visions and fundamentally transforming how businesses everywhere are run. Visit www.ksaintegration.com for more information.