Confusing a Collaboration Culture with a Consensus Culture

“Collaboration” has become a fashionable buzz word for organizations of all types. However, as we observe leadership teams and their organizations, we sometimes find their self-described collaborative cultures are actually based on consensus rather than collaboration.

“Nothing is what happens when everyone has to agree.” – Seth Godin

We previously worked with two multi-billion-dollar organizations in the process of merging. Whenever we had meetings or formed transition teams, Company A would bring 5-7 people for every one person representing Company B. Initially, Company A attributed increased participation to having a more collaborative culture. However, it soon became evident this was not the case. In Company A, decision rights were unclear. Everyone felt they were the decision-makers on every issue, so every person affected was invited to each session. A tremendous amount of efficiency was lost by involving large numbers of individuals. Meanwhile, people working in the lower levels at Company A were highly frustrated because decisions were not being made. After a challenging first year, executive management changes at a newly merged organization brought more thoughtful leadership choices and more efficiency soon followed.

Collaboration – not consensus – enables high-performing teams to deliver top results. The distinction between the terms “collaboration culture” and “consensus culture” reflects the differences between the related skill sets of problem solving and decision making. Collaboration refers to the process for proposing options and developing solutions, while consensus addresses how to make the necessary decisions. Collaboration enables your organization to fully involve the people whose knowledge and insights you want to leverage. The group shares ideas and builds upon each other’s suggestions. They then draft recommendations to a leader with the authority and accountability to make the final decision. On the other hand, consensus culture prioritizes reaching a unanimous agreement over working together to find the best answers.

What Does Consensus Culture Look Like?

Getting everyone to agree on a decision would be an ideal outcome. However, reaching that consensus is often a challenge. Working within a consensus culture causes frustration through the organization because the process is slow. Leaders say they want to make a decision, but many are unable or unwilling to exert their authority to make choices that may prove unpopular. Often decisions are not made at all, as organizations unable to find a mutually acceptable solution will park the decision.

There are several observable characteristics that distinguish a culture of consensus.

  • Decisions are often delayed while the organization tries to align the group to a mutually acceptable outcome.
  • Meetings are usually polite and civil. However, the desire to avoid conflict means participants seldom challenge each other or share different viewpoints.
  • Leadership teams, steering committees, and other decision-making meetings have a large number of members to make sure no one feels left out of the decisions. This creates inefficiency and sedates the dialogue, minimizing the likelihood of having challenging yet rich discussions. We see the meetings become information sessions vs. decision-making sessions.
  • Who is actually accountable for making decisions is unclear. When everybody is accountable, no one is truly accountable.
  • Leaders simply say “yes” rather than make difficult trade-off decisions that might upset others and cause controversy.
  • “Pile on emails” with large distribution lists grow as everyone uses “reply all.”

There are times when organizations will want to reach consensus on major decisions, such as situations where actions are not easily reversible. Examples include an executive-level decision that will affect operations for multiple years, or one with a high cost for backing away from the choice. Still, consensus should take a back seat to the more productive approach of collaborating to achieve maximum results. The pandemic has reinforced that the need for agility is paramount to survival and growth. 

Transforming A Consensus Culture

How can leaders dial down a culture of consensus? As we note in our book Mastering the Cube, culture is basically a collection of organizational choices. Revisiting the choices that created a culture that prioritizes consensus over collaboration points the way to transforming a challenging culture into a more effective environment.

Here are some techniques that organizations can deploy to move beyond a consensus culture.

  • Clarifying who is accountable and who owns the decision rights goes a long way towards solving decision paralysis.
  • Keep most meetings as small as possible, as it is difficult for a large group of people to make decisions. Remember Jeff Bezos’ two-pizza-team rule: no team should have more members than can be fed with two pizzas.
  • Trust that you have put the right people on the team to make the right decisions.
  • Choose to engage in disciplined dialogue. A leader who asks challenging questions and encourages others to do the same creates a model for desired behaviors.
  • To help model and practice, consider using an external facilitator. Bringing in an outside party allows you to introduce new ways to engage team members in an objective manner.

It takes time and focus, but a consensus culture can change. We recently began working with an organization that has a solid multi-year strategy. However, they have struggled to choose strategic priorities for the upcoming year. Their list of priorities was long and we all know that whenever everything is priority, nothing is a priority.  As facilitators, our role was to break through the need for consensus.  We set guardrails which will allow decisions to be made by the right roles in the organization and alleviate some of the need for consensus.  Also, we are now seeing leaders modeling the behavior of asking the tough questions, making trade-offs, and challenging employees, setting the stage to build a high-performing team.

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