Democracy != Consensus

As I’ve mentioned on several occasions, I work in the mainstream corporate world. One of the key aspects of any corporate environment is that in any decision, there are multiple stakeholders who are affected and may be responsible for implementing a decision, so there is a lot riding decision-making process.

As a result, and as it’s a large multinational company, significant resources are spent on training for both individual contributors and managers on all sorts of workplace topics. Decision-making, dealing with change, conflict management, and very simple things like “making meetings work” are all things that individuals and managers strive to improve.

And two concepts come up consistently when it comes to decision-making:

  1. Consensus.
  2. Buy-in.

Now, perhaps these sound to those of you outside the corporate world like throwaway terms, but if you’ve seen what happens when you don’t have them, you’d agree that these are absolutely key to keeping a well-running organization alive. Trying to implement a decision if you don’t have buy-in is a recipe for failure. It requires top-down authoritarian leadership, leads to resentment and infighting, and will turn a workplace dysfunctional over time. In a competitive market, these things will kill a business.

However, one of the key aspects to all of these training classes is that consensus is not borne of democracy. Voting on something might make a decision, but it by itself does not get you to consensus or to buy-in.

I’ll use an example. Let’s say someone’s birthday is coming up, and everyone (we’ll assume 11 people) is going to go out to lunch together. The question is where:

  • 4 of the people really want Mexican food and hate Korean BBQ.
  • 4 of the people really want Korean BBQ and hate Mexican food.
  • The three remaining people are lukewarm to both and don’t really care.

In a democratic choice, the decision will be whether to go to Mexican or Korean BBQ, and the decision will hinge specifically on the people who care the least. No matter what decision is reached, 4 people will be angry and will feel like they’re being ram-rodded into something they don’t want to do. It’s the tyranny of the majority, and it’s a completely dysfunctional way to make decisions.

Can you imagine that those 4 will be a bit surly at lunch? And when the bill comes due, who do you think might be the most likely to just be a “dollar or two short” or will scour the bill for their share saying “well I just had water, so we should each pay our share rather than splitting it equally.” People who do that are annoying enough as it is; bringing people who are angry to be there in the first place will only exacerbate the problem.

What’s a better way to do it? To discuss, to make sure everyone’s concerns are voiced, and to arrive at a decision that’s mutually agreeable. Often that might not be Mexican food OR Korean BBQ. It might be the hip new Peruvian joint that people have been dying to try. It might be Chili’s . But you work to find a solution that everyone can feel comfortable with, or you will have a crappy lunch despite the fact that some people “won”. That doesn’t mean consensus is easy. In fact, it’s far from it. But it’s absolutely key to keeping an organization–or a country–running smoothly.

Now ask yourself — how is our political system set up to work? Via democracy or via consensus?

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