When is less… less, not more? Or, Why do we seek consensus?

Forestwood asked a very thought-provoking question: why do we seek consensus?  

Merriam-Webster defines a consensus to be a “general agreement”.  Sounds benign. Perhaps like the right thing to do. But following many (many) years in a large corporation, I agree with the following definition of consensus:

"A consensus means that everyone agrees to say collectively what no one believes individually." Quote with the background of a beehive.

The image behind the quote is that of a beehive and it’s what I believe happens to us when we prioritize consensus too much: we lose something of ourselves and turn too much into bee drones. 

"The nail that sticks out gets hammered down".

Why do we seek consensus? Part of it is fear. How often have you seen this behavior, or thinking? It’s just easier to keep one’s head round rather than hammer-flat… Have you run into the manager who asks to be challenged, but ends up booting the challengers to the dog house? (yes, I know that dog house in and out :)). It’s safer to keep one’s head down, but unhealthy to one’s spirit.

"The road to hell is paved with good intentions"

Why do we seek consensus?  Part of it is give-and-take: if I want you to agree to include red in the mix, I may have to agree to include yellow in.  And then we get orange, which is not what I wanted and not what you wanted. But then we’re back to both of us agreeing to what neither one of us wanted. A truly great idea may be brought up, but more people want to make it their own, and to get them to agree to the original proposal, you may agree to the changes they suggested. While some of those changes may greatly improve the idea, enough of them water it down to being just like every other idea.  In the movie Yesterday, a compromise changed “Hey Jude” to “Hey Dude”.  Ouch! 🙂

Why do we seek consensus?  Part of it is wanting to be likedPeople like people who are like them, who agree with them.  Yes, there are people who want to be challenged, but there are many more whose preferred challenge is a “that’s the best idea ever”…

I believe a better way is to reach decisions is for the decision maker to get input from the right people, consult, discuss, argue, and then the decision maker makes the decision.

What do you think?  What are other reasons that people seek consensus?  What’s a better way to make decisions?

Unrelated trivia: what’s the first positive integer to be spelled with the letter “a”?  Answer in the next post.

Answer to last post’s trivia question: for under $1M … In fact, Larry Page and Sergei Brin agreed to sell Google to Excite for $1M in 1999.  Excite wasn’t interested J  Page and Brin agreed to go down to $750,000.  Excite still passed on it.  Excite was later sold to AskJeeves…

15 thoughts on “When is less… less, not more? Or, Why do we seek consensus?

  1. Well, I learnt many things here.
    1. – I don’t ever want to be a bee drone!
    2. – Excite chose consensus too often???
    3. The protruding nail that gets hammered down is in conflict with the, ‘squeaky wheel that gets the most grease.’
    4. The watering down of salient objectives by too much consensus is a valid point. At some point, does it lead to mutiny/revolution or disenchantment?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. First: thank you. Very much. Again, you’ve raised some intriguing questions. Always appreciated!

      Now you have me wondering: was it consensus that made Excite make that less than exciting decision? How many other decisions like that ended up hurting the decision makers’ organizations? While hearing different opinions and concerns is necessary before a good decision can be made, in what cases is a consensus critical to a better decision being made?

      And you’re right, there are more than one pair of conflicting proverbs like the nail that gets hammered and the squeaky wheel. Need to mull that one over a little more 🙂

      In your last point, were you saying that too much watering down might bring the risk of a mutiny or is it lack of people exercising consensus that could?


          1. I am not familiar with that show but I feel sure I would like it. That level of irony is always hilarious but with a twist of hard swallowed reality. The Peter Principle lives on, apparently! Hey just writing up a post about consensus.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. My first reaction was that I was glad to no longer be involved in that ‘management by consensus’ rat-race. Then I realized that being on the board of the seniors’ club I belong to is not much different. The bottom line is that when a group of people get together, whatever the purpose, compromise in some form will be required.

    When I go to tomorrow’s board meeting I will be thinking about bee hives … although most of the sting will be removed 😉

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Lol, you and me both 🙂 I can’t wait to hear how the board meeting actually went, and the ratio of honey to sting…

      You are bringing up a serious and profound distinction here, between consensus and compromise. We are (fortunately!) not all the same, which means we’re not all going to have the same opinions about everything. So consensus is almost never the default.

      In thinking about the differences, compromise is necessary much more frequently than consensus. If half your board wants to have bbq chicken, and half want to have sushi, consensus may mean having raw chicken… The chairperson of the board may instead exercise Consultative decision making, listen to the different opinions and why-s behind them, and decide that sandwiches are going to be served at lunch. That is a compromise for the sushi and the bbq lovers, but it’s not consensus (or raw chicken or starvation :)). Is this why business leaders like Andy Grove and Jeff Bezos have “disagree and commit”? You’re making me think more about it: thank you!

      Liked by 1 person

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