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Consensus is killing the difficult conversations

Consensus is killing the difficult conversations

In many cultures around the world we’re taught to be nice to people, to be a team player, and to show respect for elders and hierarchies. All nice things when considered in general, but potentially problematic in specific real-life situations. 

On top of the ideas from family and society, we’re influenced by ideas about the ideal power of collective intelligence, teamwork, and community, that oftentimes don’t explain what happens when someone is against the group or the status quo. 

These influences can make us believe that achieving consensus in any group is the right way to go to generate buy-in and engagement. Nevertheless, research and first-hand experience show that we need to dig down into these general ideas in order to build the mental models and group structures that allow for more productive collaboration. 

According to research, the main factor generating poor decision making is the lack of divergent thinking.

The Problems With Consensus

Consensus can be useful in areas where expert knowledge is limited.

In a team, it works well when we use it to agree on what to order for lunch, but fails miserably when trying to decide on new business model experiments.   

Another potential problem to keep in mind, is that consensus gives the minority too much power, which may result in “tyranny of the minority”, therefore bringing progress to a halt and significantly eroding relationships.

Consensus can create unspoken disagreement. We all know the feeling, when the boss makes a proposal that isn’t truly a proposal but more of an announcement. Everyone around the table agrees and you’re left with a bitter feeling because no one raised their voice, or even worse, they did but they were shut down. This type of situation makes people feel like they’re not valued, which in time turns into disengagement. 

In time, consensus might end up creating a culture where people can’t speak up. Then, one day, you realize that it’s really hard to get people to participate, propose new ideas, and embrace teamwork, but you can’t really understand why they they’re behaving like that. From here on, your culture enters into zombie automatic-pilot mode.

Enter Groupthink. It’s the name of a theory developed by Irving Janis (1972) to describe faulty decision making that occurs in groups as a result of forces that bring a group together (group cohesion).

Sounds counterintuitive, right? Shouldn’t more cohesion create more capacity for creation? It happens that once we’ve reached this dynamic, beliefs go unquestioned, introverted team members self-censor, people succumb to social pressure, and everything snowballs into a culture where we cannot be fulfilled, nor achieve mastery.

In our monthly report about Difficult Conversations we talk about the 8 symptoms of groupthink. We invite you to check it out to learn how to avoid it or turn it around. No one should be co-opted by social dynamics that limit someone’s potential.

How To Foster Powerful Conversations

We have learned that the key to high-performance teams is to have psychological safety, the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes. 

One big first step is to change the definition of consensus to one where people don’t need to agree with the conclusion, but they agree to support the group’s decision as if it were their own. 

At Fuckup we use “agree to disagree” as a code phrase. “Agreeing to disagree” refers to the resolution of a conflict where everyone tolerates the opposing stance, although they do not agree with it. It occurs when team members involved recognize that further discussion is ineffective or undesirable. Members remain amicable while continuing to disagree, but they all agree on supporting the initiative.

A second step is to vocalize and make your team familiar with the steps that can minimize groupthink:

  • Initially, the leader should avoid sharing opinions or preferences. Give people time to share their own ideas first.
  • Same with rounds of arguing against ideas that have been proposed, team members go first and leaders should avoid using their voice to conclude or summarize. 
  • Assign one individual to be the “devil’s advocate”. This way it’s just a role and criticism doesn’t feel personal.
  • Discuss ideas with outside members to get impartial opinions.
  • Encourage group members to remain critical. Don’t discourage dissent or challenges to the prevailing opinion. Encourage using “what if” and “yes, and”.
  • After big decisions, leaders should ensure members know they have the opportunity to express doubts during implementation.

And to finish, an important third step is to foster powerful conversations and authenticity by designing processes in your operation, the way we do at Fuckup. We foster psychological safety and difficult conversations with these activities:

  • Weekly, bi-weekly or monthly one on ones, where challenges are always discussed and bi-directional feedback is always asked for. Questions like “Is there anything in your way?”, “Are you missing any information?”, “What’s blocking you from achieving your goal?”, or even the simple and straightforward “How are you feeling?”, but always digging further after simple answers like “Fine, thanks”.

  • A weekly report where every team member includes results, opportunities, and challenges or fuck ups. The latter being an area to foster analysis and transparency on things that can become areas of opportunity.

  • Group feedback (link a blog post de feedback de Eric) sessions every six months, where one team member prepares group feedback for another one and shares it in front of the team. The receiver can only thank and acknowledge, without rebuttal. 

  • One on one feedback sessions every six months, where we pair up members that are somewhat related in their operations, therefore, they’re aware of the other’s performance. We start celebrating achievements and living our values, then we share feedback explaining why changing a certain behavior could boost their superpowers and efforts. 

  • Performance reviews every six months, where managers gather team feedback and agree with the member being reviewed on areas of opportunity to fulfil their potential personally and professionally. 

  • Fuckup Nights, where we drink our own kool-aid. During our last annual retreat I gave a talk about all the strategies and operations that were proposed by me and failed to reach their goals. Then I invited the team to reflect on how many mistakes or failures they had last year, and if they had none, why. This way we lead by example being vulnerable and foster innovation and continuous improvement.

As leaders and team members we’re continuously pushed to think about the processes and hard skills that get the job done. What others seldom mention is that it’s in the seemingly small details of relationships and behaviors that social fabric is defined. 

Relationships and dynamics in your team aren’t a default set up that can’t be changed. They need to be purposefully designed and implemented to achieve environments conducive to meaning, resilience, and innovation.

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