Is it consensus or conflict?

My wife and I are helping our son buy a house.
We’re looking at 60-year-old craftsman cottages.
Lots of charm. And lots of work.

When we see carpet on the floor – we know to pull it back.
The carpet invariably is covering up an aging wood floor that needs lots of attention.

Consensus can be like carpeting.
When teams misuse consensus it becomes a way of covering over differences – rather than engaging in constructive dialogue.

Instead of exploring legitimate differences, many teams use consensus as a way of avoiding differences and side stepping important conversations.

It goes like this:

The team needs to pick a new software vendor. There are three choices. When team gathers to decide which of three vendors to hire, the leader says she’d like the team to reach consensus.

As the team discusses the options, there’s no immediate meeting of the minds.

People disagree. The disagreements heat up.

People talk over each other and reiterate their points.  This goes on for about 10 minutes. Then, several team members stop talking. Only a few keep going – arguing with each other.

In a frustrated tone, the team leader says, “I think we should use vendor A . . . Is everyone on board?”

The room is filled with silence.

“Great,” says the team leader, “It looks like we’ve got a consensus.”

But, what did she really have?
Silence . . . a deafening silence.
And silence isn’t consensus, by any means.

Rather, this group’s silence was filled to overflowing with emotions, ideas, un-resolved issues, and un-discussed concerns.

Let’s lift up the carpet of silence and take a look at what’s underneath.
Even though the team members were sitting there silently. Not all of them were having the same experience.
There were team members who:

•    Agreed with the team leader’s choice.
•    Disagreed with the leader – but were afraid to say so.
•    Had important technical information about the vendors – but didn’t bring it up because they thought the leader had already made up her mind.
•    Felt uncomfortable when team members disagreed – and were relieved when the leader stepped in.
•    Were tired of the conversation and just wanted to move on.
•    Didn’t really care one way or the other.

Yes, the silence was deafening.

But, instead of exploring what the silence was covering – the team moved on.
A decision was made, but there was no meeting of the minds.
As Gary Winters and I explain in our book To Do or Not To Do – every team decision presents a two-fold opportunity:

•    A business opportunity: to make a good business decision.

•    A team development opportunity: to build trust, improve communication, and strengthen team alignment.

Both of these opportunities are short-changed when silence is taken as agreement.

The practice of team decision-making puts pressure on the team to mature emotionally.
Every team it’s own emotional “thermostat” – a psychological mechanism that allows for a certain amount of emotional “heat” – and no more.

When conversations or meetings get too “hot”, too intense – the thermostat kicks in and either:

•    The leader takes over and makes a decision
•    The issue is set aside for “another meeting”
•    A task force is formed to take the issue “off line”

However it occurs, the heat is returned to normal.

And the team is “saved” from having to deal with the uncomfortable pressure of working through differences. Everything and everyone returns to “normal”.

Re-setting the team’s emotional thermostat takes time – and skill.
It takes time to build the team’s ability to work through differences. But, this is time that is not wasted.

It’s an investment in developing team maturity.

By, covering over the team’s tensions with deafening silence – trust erodes and people learn to stop participating whole-heartedly in business decisions.

The next time they’re asked for their opinion – people will hold back. Instead of saying what they really think. They’ll disengage. Or grudgingly go along – without sharing their insights or expertise.

The differences that are avoided today – resurfaces tomorrow as conflicts in other forms
Because even when you carpet over differences – they’re still there.
The unaddressed concerns and damaged trust will continue to shape how people interact long after the meeting adjourns.

So, the next time a meeting room is filled with deafening silence, recognize that it’s time to in your team’s maturity.
Instead of moving on, roll back the carpet of silence and draw out the divergent points of view that are hidden underneath.

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Categories Change · Communication · Leadership

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 marsha melkonian // Mar 31, 2009 at 8:29 pm

    Hi Eric – good content here, thanks. note that this silence is particularly true on conference calls – hen people are not in the room together, you cant see the eye rolls, and the people who are just half listening and doing email.

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