Consensus Means - No One Is Happy

Everyone wants to be in control.  Please don’t deny it.  If you can’t be honest with yourself just put the

book down and walk away.  I say again everyone wants to be in control.  Some are more dominate then

others but overt dominance can often lead to failure and servitude.  A number of years ago, I started an

accelerated MBA program; one of those 18 month things for working adults.  I entered the program for all

of the right educational reasons, I wanted to make more money and I thought the degree would make that

possible.  I also thought that classes designed for and filled with working adults were going to be so much

better, so much more practical then the abstract and theoretical fluff that is injected into the open minded

college youth.  When you have to deal with a group of mature adults who have already had to shoulder the

responsibilities of the working world, even the most out of touch academic would have to adjust, right?


OK, if it is not clear by now, I had always or at least always tried to think the best of any situation and any

person from the start.  I rarely do this now, I still hope for the best, but in preparing for the worst I have to

think the worst in order to be ready to deal with whatever comes.  It is better to be pleasantly surprised

then to have a rude awakening.


In this program, I was going to learn all about business; a very wide and deep area of study for certain.  

Business can, more then most other fields of study, cover the entirety of human existence.  To exist people

need things.  The processes of getting, giving, making, taking, moving, and disposing of things are all in

the scope of business not to mention the interactions of the people who do those things.  This is why it has

always seemed absurd to me to hear, “I’m a businessman.” In response to the question of what do you do

for a living.  That’s like saying I exist.  In any case, I had already completed my first intro to business class

and was well into a business relations class when I encountered the concept of consensus.  It was all the

rage and very popular back then.  I know the word and the concept existed before this time but it seemed

very fashionable with the corporate world at the time.



A dictionary understanding of the word consensus might read like:


“A general agreement, unanimity, or the judgment arrived at by most of those concerned.”



I believe the class was entitle Business Management.  It was going along well, I thought until we reached

that chapter on building consensus.  With each chapter came a series of pretend real life group exercises

that were supposed to prepare you to deal with the unplanned realities of the work place.  The class was

split in half to form two groups of about ten each.  Our assignment was to read the scenarios in the book,

go into conference, and come up with a group decision based entirely on consensus.  I thought no big deal

this should take ten minutes and then we could have a long lunch.


Our group went into a conference room nearby and sat down to get it done.  Most of us looked a bit

hungry and tired but were ready to tackle the assignment and were determined to get out a bit early.  Note

that I said most not all; this is the biggest problem with consensus. (Note also that the inverse of this can

be a difficulty with the concept of democracy but that is an idea for another time.)  There were a few

members of our group that had brought their lunch and a few others that always seemed to run contrary to

the general direction of the group.  Remember that in any situation, no one enters at the exact same

place.  Everyone has baggage and varying circumstances.  We did all have two important commonalities:

one, we had all chosen to take this course and two, we had to do the assignment in order to complete the

course.


Someone read the scenarios which I believe to have been about whether we (company X) should and how

we should build a petroleum plant in the middle of a rain forest in South America.  Half said no right off.  

The other half said yes to verifying degrees depending on how it was to be done.  The point of the

scenario was to determine what would be the best business decision for company x.  At first, the opinions

were across the board of thought but as questions were asked and answered and some clarity developed,

two distinct sides formed.  I had been quite until this time as it seemed pointless to me.  I just wanted to go

to lunch and I thought that adding to the useless talk early on would just delay us.  Also it was not real, so

although, I might have cared more for the obvious economic benefit to the families of the workers hired to

fill the 5K new jobs that the project would have created over the possible detriment to the speckled caribou’

s biome, I was open to whatever choice would complete the assignment in the shortest amount of time.  

When it was clear that there were just two sides remaining in the discussion I stepped in to work it out.  I

began by verifying the specific points that each side’s position was based on, then moved into asking this

for that questions of each of the more dominate members of both sides.  It went something like this; Ok,

you want, feel, think this?  Would you be willing to do, change, allow that?  In minutes, an agreement had

formed and it appeared I would soon be on my way to Del Taco.  I was about to close the discussion off

and pronounce us done when someone said, “Let’s go around everyone and make sure we are all in

consensus.”  I didn’t want to but thought OK let’s just do it and be done.  We went one by one around the

room and everyone made comment something like yep, good, ok… that is until we reach this one skinny

old guy who had not said anything the whole time.  His first words were, No, I don’t like it.  I asked him, OK,

why.  What about it do you disagree with? Thinking we could just fix those parts.  He said, “All of it.”  “I don’t

like any of it.”  I started to say something and was beaten to the punch by about three other people from

both sides of the issue.  They all tried to resolve his issues, placate his demands, or intimidate him into

agreement.  Nothing worked.  His hard stance shattered the group consensus at first driving us back into

discussions but the discussions were short as we had already worked through every possible detail and

everyone else agreed that we had not only come to a reasonable decision but that we had effectively dealt

with every point he brought up.  He on the other hand still did not agree.  When pressed and implored out

side of the bounds of the scenario to think about the group and the class he stated “It didn’t matter what

anyone else said he just didn’t like it and he was not going to agree, period.”  The collective motivation and

happiness left the room.  There seemed to be a complete lack of understanding from the group as to why

he would act this way and what should be done.


I on the other hand understood completely.  It was all about him not the scenario or even the class.  He

was a single retired man in his early sixties.  He had no job ladder to climb or career goal to meet.  He was

taking this class mostly for something to do and to build up his personal ego by having an advanced

degree.  He did not have much in the way of family; having never been married or having children.  In the

world and in his life out side of the class he had no sense of respect or authority; no sense of control.  He

was getting older and wanted the type of validation that those things bring.


This program offered him that and this activity gave him a perfect opportunity to take those things.  It had

inspired him to do it meanly as he felt he had been ignored throughout the whole process by young people

who should look up to him and seek his advise and wisdom.  No, I am not speculating as to his train of

thought and motivation because the week following this session I spent a long lunch talking with him trying

to understand why he had acted the way he did.  In the end, we gave up on the thought that we would be

able to work it out and accepted the fact that we had failed to reach consensus.  The teacher passed us

on the exercise stating that not reaching consensus was always one possible out come but in his academic

genius provided no recourse or suggestion on how to respond and dealt with the situation.  I guess in the

academic version of the real world if you come to an impasse business is just supposed to stop.  I can tell

you that in my experience in the real world that person would have either been ignored or ignored and

then fired.  The brutal truth is that true consensus is rare and the larger the group the more so this is true.  

Consensus develops out of a common sense, feeling, or understanding about something.  People are all

different so it is tuff to keep all the kittens together and going the same direction.  If you got a bunch of

stuffy old white guy who all went to the same schools and had a similar life they could reach consensus; or

is you got a bunch of gang banger from the ghetto they could all reach consensus; You might even get a

group of soccer moms to reach consensus but the more diverse the group the less likely you are to reach

agreement let alone consensus.  This is why diversity is not necessarily a good thing.  The more diverse

the group the more the members have to compromise and the less happy they will be.  Agreement may be

reached but the support for the decision of the group will be weak and the decision will likely be a poor one.


It’s like the old story of making soup.  One person starts off with the idea of making some soup, we’ll say

chicken noodle.  Some else comes along an wants to join but likes potatoes and puts some in, some else

comes along and puts in some fish, someone else puts in oranges, then Tabasco sauce, then gummy

worms, and so on and so forth until everyone has added their piece and you are left with a revolting

concoction that no one wants to eat.  Slight diversity can highlight or accent the base.  All inclusive

diversity and simply for the sake of diversity is destructive to the whole. (OK, back to political theory- this is

why America has always worked in the past.  We came from everywhere but we had a base and accented

it with diversity.  We developed a common understanding and then tolerated decent.  We did not make

decent the commonality.  It’s counter intuitive and counter productive to make decent the only

commonality- OK I ‘m done just read animal farm and you’ll understand)


One more point to make here that some of you might have already understood consensus can allow one

person or a small group to ruin things for everyone else in the group.  One person can wield enough

power to subvert the will of the people and in effect become a dictator.  It appears I am on a political bent

as I write this so I will move on but keep in mind that although each of these stories and lessons exist as a

self contained item they are all interrelated.  The understanding of one should highlight each other in turn.



The Point:

Dealing with people is complicated and the more of them involved the more difficult it is to get them to

agree.



The Lesson to Learn:

Consensus is the process of getting everyone to compromise a little at a time until they come to a common

acceptance.  It is making decisions based on what the members of the group will accept and not the merits

of the issue.  It tends to result in poor decisions that the group can live with but are not really happy with or

proud of.



The Most Brutal Truth:

Consensus is bad.  Agreement by a majority is better and agreement by a plurality is best.