Steve McKee, author of When Growth Stalls and Power Branding, speaks to the huge difference between two similar words – and to the importance of fostering one of them in every organizational setting from family to global corporation.
The two words are “consensus” and “contentious,” which sound similar and have a few things in common. Both come from Latin. Both are directions to which conflict can head.
They both begin with "con" (Latin for “with”) and end in “us.” But what points to their differences is what comes in the middle. Consensus embraces “sensibility.” Contentious embraces the notion of tension.
McKee says “consensus is necessary to the healthy functioning of organizations and institutions.” In contrast, “contentious is the way to describe too many professional interactions—especially in times of unusual stress brought about by a rapidly changing and increasingly politicized environment -- when we need even more sensibility and less tension.”
McKee cautions that consensus, by itself, isn’t sufficient – because consensus can develop around a poor choice. He cites the example of Blockbuster, the formerly huge storefront video rental franchise, which decided to stick with its retail store distribution model.
It’s gone now, a victim of the Netflix strategy of distributing videos by mail first and then later online.
While consensus can’t guarantee the success of any strategy, McKee cautions: “Without consensus, even the best strategies won’t be well-executed.”
Perhaps that’s why in the Catholic Church, leaders recommend that parish pastoral and finance councils strive for consensus rather than quickly resorting to quick up and down, win-lose votes.
Family deliberations, whether they’re restricted to couples or involve other members of the family, generally value the same decision-making approach.
At the same time, McKee notes that it’s not likely that on a large scale everyone will agree with a decision. If no decision is made until everyone advocates a single option, organizations find themselves wallowing around in deep mud.
That’s where what McKee calls “managed consensus” emerges – and the importance of a healthy culture emerges.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos talks about the ability to “disagree and commit.” People can agree to support a decision even if they aren’t fully convinced that it’s the best choice.
Culture the key
What matters, McKee says, is that “if people work in an intellectually honest environment in which they’re confident they’ll be heard, they’ll be more willing to commit to a direction when circumstances require it, even if they don't fully agree.”
That’s why a leader’s ability to listen and build trust is so important.
“Listen to your people,” McKee urges. “Give their opinions a fair hearing. Argue, debate, and contend with one another. Then come to a reasonable next step. Ideally, you’ll agree and commit.”
McKee explains: “It’s also okay to disagree and commit. But there’s no such thing as management by contention (an oxymoron if there ever was one).”
Martin Luther King Jr. once described a genuine leader as “a molder of consensus.”
“Each of us can be that leader if we are intentional about shaping and sustaining the proper environment in which decisions get made,” McKee says.
That environment is one where everyone is respected and has the opportunity to be heard – which should be the bottom line for Jesus-like Leaders.