Why consensus may be the wrong fit for your team

If your leaders are always striving for their teams to reach consensus, then they might be ignoring how people best make decisions or collaborate, says Mark Murphy:

Article main image
Jul 5, 2024

When I ask leaders about the ideal decision-making process for teams, the response I frequently get is “consensus.”

Originating from the Latin word ‘consentire’ (meaning to act together or share in the feeling), consensus in a team setting typically means everyone is in agreement.

For obvious reasons, consensus is an attractive place to want to get to.

Compared to other decision-making methods – like majority rule or bargaining – consensus generally garners the highest level of buy-in, emotional commitment, and thoroughness.

However, despite its apparent appropriateness, the assertion that consensus suits the world of work is a mass generalization, and there are numerous instances (and communication styles), where consensus is absolutely not the best choice.

Consensus isn’t always best

So why is this? Well, for a start, consensus tends to be a slower decision-making process compared to other methods, such as voting.

In addition to this, some individuals are particularly frustrated by the lack of clearly defined procedures in achieving consensus, as it often involves a messy and sometimes chaotic back-and-forth to get everyone on the same page.

From the million-plus responses to the Leadership IQ test “What’s Your Communication Style?” we know there are four major communication styles:

The Analytical Communicator: This communicator likes hard data, real numbers, and specific language. They often have little patience for communication that includes lots of feelings and emotional words.

The Intuitive Communicator: This communicator likes the big picture, avoids getting bogged down in details, and cuts right to the chase. They prefer a broad overview and can get frustrated by detailed, step-by-step communication.

The Functional Communicator: This communicator likes process, detail, timelines, and well-thought-out plans. They communicate in a step-by-step fashion to ensure nothing gets missed.

The Personal Communicator: This communicator values emotional language and connection. They use emotional intelligence to understand what others are really thinking and feeling.

Implications for consensus

As you might expect, analytical communicators generally dislike consensus.

They prefer clear, data-driven decision-making processes and find the emotional and interpersonal aspects of consensus frustrating and inefficient.

Intuitive communicators may also struggle with consensus.

They prefer quick, big-picture discussions and can get impatient with the detailed and often lengthy discussions that consensus requires.

Functional communicators, who thrive on process and detail, may find consensus challenging but manageable. They can get frustrated by the lack of a clear, structured process in achieving consensus but appreciate the thoroughness it can bring.

Personal communicators, on the other hand, often thrive in a consensus-driven environment. They value the emotional buy-in and connection that consensus fosters and are willing to invest the time and effort to achieve it.

Recognizing communication styles

The key to effective team decision-making lies in recognizing and respecting these very diverse communication styles.

Leaders need to remember, for examples, that it’s essential to create an environment where every communicator feels heard and valued.

While engaging in consensus, this means leaders needed to accommodate the likes/dislikes of different communicators.

For analytical communicators they will need to present data with clear rationales for their decision-making.

They can help Intuitive communicators by summarizing key points and keeping discussions focused on the big picture.

Functional communicators can be kept engaged by ensuring that the process is methodical and comprehensive.

Meanwhile, personal communicators can be empowered to facilitate emotional connections and ensure everyone feels included.

In addition, hybrid decision-making models can be adopted.

For example, teams might start with a broad consensus approach to gather input and ensure buy-in, then move to a more structured decision-making process like voting or a leadership decision for final resolution.

This can balance the need for inclusivity with the need for efficiency and clarity.

Here’s the bottom line: Consult your team on their preferred decision-making method.

Do they genuinely want consensus?

Would they prefer to vote on everything?

Or do they want the leader to make the final call?

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer, but if you want smoother team operations, it’s wise to take your team’s preferences into account.

Tailoring your decision-making approach to the communication styles of your team can lead to more effective, harmonious, and productive outcomes.