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Consultative vs Consensus Management

There are two distinct styles of collaborative management. One is preferable to the other for a few reasons.

14 August 2007
I was having dinner the other night with a former employee, and I surprised her with something I said. For the previous 11 years we had worked together in a participative management environment in which I had the responsibility for furthering the culture. The culture when I arrived was one of consensus management, and it was made clear that there would be no other approach. Not having run a consensus management approach before, I embraced it and did my best to carry it forward. As the business grew significantly over the years (it got to well over 500 people), the challenges of having full consensus became more and more difficult. Many times I wondered if we were doing the right thing, and many times my leadership group expressed discouragement and frustration with the results. But consensus style was the requirement, so we created new and useful methods of enhancing communication and encouraging buy-in and performance. Looking back on it I believe we did more with a full consensus management approach than any other company I have been able to find information on. And I think the tools we developed will have tremendous application in the years to come. But what I said that surprised my dinner date so much was that I would not do it again. “But, I thought you were a full supporter of it! I thought it was primarily your idea!” she said. Full supporter, yes. Primarily my idea? Well, the management style was clearly not my idea. A lot (but not all) of the tools were my idea or tools that I incorporated based on others’ ideas. But sometimes we support something because that’s what we’ve been hired to do. I don’t think that’s necessarily a form of selling our souls either. I had no reason to believe that full consensus management was a bad thing, nor did I have enough experience (nobody did, back then) to suggest it couldn’t scale to what we were trying to accomplish. I do believe that with the help of a powerful management team we created tools that will be wildly effective in other environments. But my experience also taught me full consensus management can not be successful beyond a few dozen people. I do believe in collaborative management. In fact, there are three management/cultural styles: control, competitive, and collaborative. Within collaborative style there are two approaches – consensus and consultative. Consensus is where everyone has a voice and the requirement is for the group to work hard to come to full agreement before proceeding. I think this is very important for marriages and partnerships. It’s important for boards of directors. It’s possible among people who are essentially equals in intellect, experience and commitment. Consultative style is where the people in authority say “I’ll gather your opinions, I’ll take them seriously and learn from them, but then I’ll make the decision because it’s my responsibility to do.” Perhaps the decision will be made by that one authority, and perhaps it will be made with a group of similarly responsible authorities. It’s still collaborative, but with parameters. Why do I think consultative works where consensus does not? Part of the answer is in the sentence “it’s (consensus) possible among people who are essentially equals in intellect, experience and commitment.” Part of the answer lies in the fact that people want, deserve, and expect to experience good leadership. And part of the answer is that when you try to export democracy into entities that have fundamental constructs that will prevent them from benefiting from it, all you get is anarchy. People respect responsibility and authority when they are appropriately demonstrated. When a business leader spends all his or her time saying, “well, what do you think?” “Maybe we should let an ad hoc address this,” or “I think the answer will present itself if we have the right discussion with the right parties present,” those are not the messages the people hear. What they hear is, “I don’t know,” and “I’m hoping an ad hoc will bail my ass out,” and “I’m hoping that if we get more people together you won’t find out that I don’t know.” Even if that leader means to be collaborative and show respect for the opinions of others, the result is that they’re being indecisive and wasting time. I was once told that if you get a group of people together and ask them a bunch of questions they’ll come up with the answer. I was further told that the question-asker didn’t even have to be an expert in that area. Where the heck did they come up with that idea? It’s a complete bastardization of the Socratic concept, preached by someone who never understood it in the first place. Either the question-asker or the question-answerers have to know what they are talking about. Otherwise, it’s that old cliché of the blind leading the blind. And that idea that Socrates only asked questions and didn’t outright teach? Well that’s just not true. Read the dialogues of Plato or of Xenophon and you’ll see that Socrates talked a lot more than he asked! And that’s no criticism of Socrates – it was right that he should talk when he had so much to teach. When people are being led down a blind alley, they don’t appreciate it. And they shouldn’t. They might get beaten up or mugged. Consensus management in its pure, theoretical form would hold out not just for agreement but for complete understanding. Complete understanding on a broad range of topics (such as one confronts in a business) requires an elevated level of knowledge and thinking skills, not to mention maturity. In the absence of that sort of parity, consensus management descends into the abyss of equalness and fairness, along with a strange tendency for everyone involved to think they know more than they actually do. I will definitely do collaborative management again. I like collaboration. I like creating an environment in which everyone is encouraged to contribute their ideas and their knowledge and to step out on a limb from time to time with something truly outrageous or from left field. I have always loved the thrill of realizing that person working on the dock is actually on the school board of their town, that the guy in receiving skis Switzerland every winter, and that the woman in the Call Center once owned her own business and sold it for nearly a million dollars. People are interesting and intelligent and a lot more complex than most businesses want to recognize. Yep. I want to get to know all those interesting people. I want to incorporate their ideas and their knowledge, and I want to include them to the full extent they wish to be included and at the appropriate level of responsibility for their skills and experience. And I’ll do it in a consultative style. Because at the end of the day, people have a right and a desire to know who is responsible for what, and to expect their leaders to be well-informed about the topic at hand. They have a right to expect their leaders to be voracious in acquiring new knowledge. And they have a right to expect their leaders to be teachers, passing that knowledge on every chance they get. People don’t mind being led, and when they understand the ground rules, they are great about contributing their ideas. What they dislike is being waffled. Don’t you?
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