Build Successful Consensus

Build successful consensus and create decisions where everyone feels good about the end result and you will be on your way to creating a motivated and contributing team. 

You will often come across a number of action items on your plan which while on one hand seem particularly straightforward and simple to complete, yet on the other hand involve groups who are polar opposites in their approach to the solution.  These require special attention and need to be handled carefully.

A few months ago I found myself in a situation where a group of employees were contravening some critical security policies.  They did not do this out of neglect, but rather because they sincerely were trying to operate in the best interests of the senior management and external stakeholders.  Opposed to this was the central security group who had laid out a policy that was fairly black and white and any contravention of this was was identified as requiring severe penalty.

One approach to resolving this impasse would have been to have senior management lay down the law, tell people to stop their behavior and require immediate adherence and their authority certainly would have allowed them to do this.  The central security group wouldn’t have cared.  They would have had their requirements satisfied.  In the business division however it would have created some morale problems.  When an employee is acting in a way whereby they are sincerely trying to do the best thing for the organization, demanding blind obedience without listening implies a condescending attitude and sends a a message to the employees that their integrity is being questioned. 

A far better approachis to build consensus first before a decision is made.  Remember the expression, “seek first to understand, then to be understood”.  This is never more applicable than in this kind of situation.  What we did first was to meet with the employees regarding their actions which management did not want to continue.  We met with the sincere desire to listen and understand what business requirements they were trying to achieve with their actions.  But you can’t fake this.  You have to go into the meeting earnestly desiring to understand their perspective.  You have to truly put yourself in their shoes and really comprehend their objectives.

After several meetings regarding this I prepared a two page summary identifying the requirements from both the employees and from security and circulated this to make sure everyone could see the two perspectives.  Research and discussion accompanied the circulation and a number of alternatives were identified.  We worked with the technical teams to ensure solutions were possible to meet the employee requirements and lined up technical leads who could work with them to configure things for their individual needs.

A follow-up meeting was held with the employees, bringing in the key technical leaders and alternatives were explored so that when the meeting was concluded all items had either been addressed, or follow-up was planned to take care of the remaining issues that needed more work.  But my responsibility was not done yet.  The last puzzle piece had to be put in place.

I then sent an email to the senior management team, cc’ing all of the employees who had been in the meeting and explained that both our group and the employees recognized the desire of management to follow the central security policies, and together we had discussed and worked through some alternatives.  The note also said it would take time to work through all of the last details and so we asked them to be patient with us in case their were hiccups, while we put in place the new processes and tools to meet the employee business requirements all while adhering to the central security policies.   

When I used the tone of “we” in the note I sincerely meant it.  It was up to us to work along side them find them a solution and put ourselves in the position with them of needing to move from the current state of behavior to the new one.  It implied that we were part of the problem and we had to own the solution as much as the employees.  in other words there was no finger pointing, it was all “we are in this together”.   This is a very critical point.  There is a human tendency in things like this to write emails with the under tone of distancing oneself from the group that is in question but that attitude only seeks to create animosities and drives wedges between project teams.  If you create an attitude of common problem ownership and consensus approach and a desire to work towards the solution together the employees will sense this and feel like they want to be a part of a successful consensus solution.

When you sincerely take the approach of listening to understand, consensus happens.  However you can’t fake it.  You have to believe in the value of that approach and your action and messaging must mirror your beliefs.  When you do this, you will build successful consensus.