Never Worship at the Altar of Consensus

Never Worship at the Altar of Consensus

“A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.”
- Martin Luther King Jr.

We are tribal beings. We enjoy being part of group. The safety, camaraderie, and community that come along with a group are naturally attractive to us. Being part of something larger makes us more fulfilled beings. Within these social structures—whether volunteer organizations, athletic teams, companies, or some other group—we take on different roles. Some of us are natural leaders or organizers of people, while others are role players or rabble-rousers. Some of us accept the status quo and others rage against the machine.

In my experience, this tribal desire leads most of us to yearn for consensus. We do not want to upset the tribe so we look to agree—to make decisions as a group and ensure that everyone is aligned and satisfied. While this desire for consensus may be good for our short-term relationships and comfort, it is detrimental to our creative outputs and the achievement of our most coveted goals.

Quite often I present creative work—new logos, websites, or marketing campaigns—to groups of decision makers. What happens next is an uncomfortable dance. It starts with silence. Then everyone in the room looks at one another to see what others think, with the most weight given to the alpha’s reaction. Eventually the alpha will give a definitive opinion. But before that, someone else will usually ask a question, or comment on something innocuous, providing little opinion, and often making some financial inference. For instance: “I really loved those paper clips you used to keep the pages together and that blue was a nice color. Looks like it could be expensive. What do you think of the slogan, Roger?”

After some shifting, a few sips of coffee, and similar expressions of finite patience, the alpha (Roger in this case) will deliver that definitive statement (and then maybe text a spouse). Everyone else in the room quickly agrees—worshipping at the alter of consensus in order to avoid the discomfort of stating an alternative opinion. The bigger the organization, the more likely it is that this will happen. Which is why half the job of an creative entrepreneur or executive is to learn how to work within power structures to mold an opinion before getting into this room.

I have worked with great leaders, good leaders, and really bad leaders. And outside of empathy, the key difference between the greats and not so greats is their desire and ability to shape consensus through honest dialogue. They recognize and accept that as a species we desire consensus, but they find ways to make their constituents comfortable sharing their opinions and feeling they have influence on the chosen path.

This is mainly done in two ways.

Creating the right culture is the primary antidote to the limiting, instinctual consensus I’ve outlined. There’s much truth to the following saying: If there’s more honesty in your hallways than in your boardrooms, you have a problem. Cultivating a group culture that rewards honesty and healthy debate is vital to avoiding the pitfalls of consensus. The general population of your group must not be afraid of or discouraged from being honest with leadership. And leadership must be open to listening or at the very least making people feel heard.

The second key factor is the encouragement of active dialogue and meaningful connection between the leader and their teams. Most people are afraid of speaking publicly or in a group setting. Therefore the likelihood of them taking a risk and disagreeing within a group setting is low. It is up to leaders to engage their constituency in ways that make people comfortable sharing. This can be done by understanding the team members’ preferred communication methods and personality types—i.e., introvert, extrovert—engaging them in settings that are less formal, and investing the time to build trust.  When people feel they are connected to a leader and that their opinion has been heard they are far more likely to buy into your strategy.

Do you agree?

While you probably won’t tell me, do yourself and your group a favor by speaking up the next time you have the opportunity to make an impact.

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