Consensus Decision-Making Sells Your Team Short. Here’s What to Do Instead.

I encounter too many startups that rely on reaching consensus as their primary method for decision-making. The tactic is born out of a belief that it not only leads to the best decision but is the best approach for creating harmony amongst the team.

Both are incorrect.

Not don’t get me wrong, consensus decision-making isn’t the worst way to move forward. It does a decent job at finding some form of agreement and allows a team to make progress. However, it also leaves a bigger opportunity on the table.

Why Consensus Falls Short

The main problem with consensus decision-making is that it fosters conflict avoidance. Harmony and togetherness get prioritized over debate and finding the best path forward.

In a consensus model, the more contrarian an opinion is, the less likely it will be shared. Divergent viewpoints steer the team away from reaching agreement, which then means more time spent in the meeting room debating. Busy leaders don’t like meetings. So, to reach consensus, they’ll often swallow down their doubts and offer the team a weak “yes” so they can get back to their work.

This is nothing more than ‘false consensus’ where individuals — exhausted of the debate — choose to “agree” while actually disagreeing. At a minimum, by doing this you’re not getting the best thinking from your team.

In the worst cases, team members leave the meeting unengaged, secretly hoping the decision is proven wrong to justify their unspoken opinion.

Put simply, consensus doesn’t often create real agreement within teams. Rather it creates unspoken disagreement.

Disagree and Commit — A Way to Surface Better Options and Create Harmony Too

Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, offers up a better way to make decisions called “Disagree and Commit.” The approach isn’t his own, largely inspired by Intel’s legendary leader, Andy Grove, but Bezos believed in it enough to include it in his 2016 letter to shareholders and as one of Amazon’s leadership principles. It reads:

“Have backbone, disagree and commit — Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting. Leaders have conviction and are tenacious. They do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion. Once a decision is determined, they commit wholly.”

Disagreeing usually isn’t hard for members of a team, doing so in a healthy fashion can be. The remedy is trust.
Teams that trust one another aren’t scared of conflict. They embrace it as a healthy part of moving forward together.

Teams that trust one another know that they can be vulnerable with their opinions even if they are completely opposed to others’ viewpoints.

There’s even a powerful virtuous cycle that happens being doing so, because teams that are willing to get it all out on the table, without taking the conversation personally, grow to trust each other even more. Not holding back actually creates a deeper sense of togetherness.

Patrick Lencioni, in his book The Advantage, shares a simple practice to help leaders jumpstart learning to disagree that he calls “Mining for Conflict.” Using this method a leader’s job is to sense when there is unspoken disagreement and simply ask everyone to come clean. It’s a subtle way of giving the team permission to share what previously would go unshared. These new perspectives can be invaluable in helping everyone see potential blindspots and new possibilities. Learning to disagree without taking things personally is powerful when practiced.

There can actually be more togetherness and harmony through healthy debate and conflict. The key is that the debate must be followed by commitment.

Using Commitment to Make Decisions

After lively debate and even disagreement, a team must move forward together by committing to a course of action. To do so, it needs to be clear who on the team is responsible for making the final decision. This is usually the team’s leader (ex. the CEO within an executive team).

Remember, it is expected and even preferred that there is some disagreement around the decision being made. It is far better to have a team of highly-intelligent, driven people than a team of “yes” people. Yet still the decision needs to be made and committed to, even for those people who are being asked to commit to what they don’t fully agree with.

Team members can agree and commit or they can disagree and commit, but everyone must commit.

Do so explicitly. Before leaving the meeting room, everyone should look the team in the eye and verbally commit to the decision. There should be no doubt that you’re moving forward together.

Embracing real commitment over consensus decision-making, a team will see new perspectives, make better decisions, and build a deeper sense of togetherness along the way.

Remember: Commitment > Consensus


This article originally appeared on The Ascent.