KJRSpeak: “Have we reached a concession yet?”

Heard by Tom Berendt during an exercise on consensus building.

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The ability to building consensus is a critical leadership skill. What if the leader you report to doesn’t have it?

In past weeks we’ve covered several managing-up situations, including how to deal with managers who base their decision style on personal preference rather than what the situation calls for.

Sometimes, though, the problem isn’t the wrong style. It’s poor technique.

Take, for example, a decision that should be made by consensus: Either buy-in matters more than anything else, or no one person has the authority to make it.

You’re in the meeting and what started off as a productive discussion long-ago descended into mere looping. And your manager seems content to let it run its course.

What’s needed is to stop arguing about the decision, and instead agree how to make it. That’s an easier consensus to get, and it makes consensus on the decision much easier.

Start by becoming a non-combatant early. The moment you realize things are starting to loop, stop talking and make your goal distilling the key points of view being expressed.

Then, get everyone’s attention and summarize the status of the discussion. “We seem to be repeating the same points over and over. From what I can tell, these seem to be the main points of view,” and here you take control of the whiteboard (the room does have a whiteboard, doesn’t it?) to write them down as you list them. It will either be a list of between three and five alternatives, or a single alternative followed by the question, yes or no.

Next, ask your manager’s permission to try something (for this to be managing up you have to operate under his/her authority, not subvert it). After the automatic “yes,” tell the group, “I think we should be asking how we’re going to make this decision. The standard method in a situation like this is a simple comparison matrix.” That’s if you have a list of alternatives. If you have a yes/no decision instead, the standard method is a simple list of plusses and minuses.

Then ask the group whether this seems like the right approach, and if not, what might be better. If nobody answers, ask those who had been arguing the loudest if it makes sense to them.

Congratulations. You have consensus on the process.

Next is to list the criteria — the factors your group should be taking into account when making it. Get everyone’s thoughts on the board. Consolidate any repetitions in real time (“What you just said sounds a lot like x. Is it different enough that it needs to be kept separate, or should we rephrase x a bit so it covers it?”)

Not all factors are created equal, so weighting them comes next. I recommend a three point scale to keep it real simple. A factor gets a three if it’s essential, two if it’s highly important. Everything else gets a one.

To get there, vote. This is one of the few times where it’s the only practical alternative. One very effective way of handling this is to give everyone three votes. They can use all three votes on one factor if they care about it a lot, or they can spread their votes around. Just have them walk up to the whiteboard and add tally marks. Total them up, give the top third a weighting of three, second third a weighting of two and the rest a weighting of one and you’re done.

To score each factors, vote again. This time I recommend a five point scale, where five means a particular alternative is outstanding for the factor in question, and one means it stinks.

Tally, crunch the numbers, and see which alternative floats to the top.

Usually, you’ll all find there’s a clear winner. If so, declare it and perform a “consensus check” — go around the room and ask everyone in it, one at a time, if they can live with it. If anyone answers no, here’s the key: Don’t ask why. Don’t do it.

Instead, ask what they think was wrong with the process that they think it delivered the wrong answer. Whatever they say, will almost certainly be just one more factor to include in the analysis. So add it. It almost certainly won’t change the result.

Most likely, though, once everyone has gone through the process together, they’ll accept the answer it delivers. That’s when you turn to your manager to ask, “Does this make sense to you?”

You aren’t trying to subvert your manager’s authority after all. You’re just helping your manager exercise it more efficiently.