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Why Consensus is the Enemy of Collaboration

July 24, 2012
at 9:53 am PST

Increasing how well organizations collaborate is the business opportunity of the decade. But there is one toxic mindset that can inhibit collaboration’s potential: many individuals confuse collaboration with consensus.  Consensus is what makes everyone happy; collaboration is about achieving the best outcome.

As business leaders, it’s vital to recognize that consensus is the enemy of collaboration. Sometimes when we say collaboration, people believe it’s an opportunity to hold hands and sing “kumbaya” around the office campfire. I was deeply inspired by Morten Hansen’s book, Collaboration, in which Hansen stated so brilliantly: “The goal of collaboration is not collaboration itself, but great results.”

Consensus exists because human beings are inherently conflict-averse, especially when they interact in group settings or work with people they don’t know well. When you’re afraid to disagree with someone, it’s often easier to settle for the plain-vanilla idea.  I call this the “A.T.T.A.P. Syndrome.”  A.T.T.A.P. is an acronym for “All things to all people.” How can your effort achieve an extraordinary outcome – a “great result” – when  it is so diluted that it’s undifferentiated?

The “sibling” of consensus is passive-aggressiveness – that nasty human behavior that often results in people intentionally impeding other to better their own aims.  The dark underside of consensus is that it actually encourages passive-aggressive behavior by making it possible for people to agree to support something,  but that “something”  is so broad that their contribution isn’t really necessary to the idea’s success.

It is simply difficult to create accountability around a consensus and stamp out passive aggressiveness. We’ve all experienced how passive-aggressive behavior can slow organizations down, make them less adaptable and certainly create an unhappy place to work.

Here is what you can do as a leader:  First, establish the shared goal of any effort at collaboration. If you can’t be specific and granular, publish guiding principles of what success looks for a team.  Make sure those principles are aggressive and black and white, such as:  Achieve #1 or #2 market share position; Capture 40+% market share; Drive customer satisfaction up X%.  Guiding principles establish the guardrails of collaboration. We cover this in depth in Chapter Four of The Collaboration Imperative: Unlocking Your Organization’s True Potential, which I co-wrote with my Cisco colleague Carl Wiese.

Second, the sibling of collaboration is authenticity.  You can read my previous post on authenticity.  Authenticity turbocharges collaboration because it replaces passive-aggressive behavior with differentiated, more constructive behavior. Authenticity emphasizes what someone actually believes is the best idea to achieve a differentiated result – as opposed to a perspective that might not offend someone else in the room.  Your job as a leader is to get your team to unleash authentic thinking and create the conditions for it to flourish.  The best way to do it:  publicly ask your team to declare how they think and make decisions, and embrace the diversity of thinking on your team.  The more your teammates acknowledge their differences the more likely their contributions will be accepted without prejudice.

Are you ready to replace passive-aggressive, consensus thinking with authentic collaboration?

Ron

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