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Has The Pendulum Swung Too Far On Seeking Consensus?


Are CEOs, senior executives, business owners, and managers of all stripes seeking consensus too often?

The demise of top down, arrogant, autocratic management is cause for celebration. Many executives and managers have seen the light and now treat their employees with more respect. They have come to realize that employees with differing expertise, experience, and positions within the company can provide valuable and varied input and ideas that facilitate problem solving, improve decisions, lead to more sustainable improvements, and save time. Furthermore, they now realize that involving employees in the organization's challenges doesn't just enhance that one particular situation, it also energizes employees, stimulates good ideas, improves employee judgment, and saves time throughout the organization on a daily basis. They also realize there is no shame in not having all the answers themselves and real danger in making important decisions without getting critical input from others.

Some old school managers still adhere to the old top down practices. Most people I know abhor working for such companies and leave when the opportunity presents itself. I don't want to say anything to suggest that companies return to this style, however, I believe the pendulum has swung too far in many companies. Many executives are now proud of having evolved to being consensus driven and they now do everything by consensus. And that is where the problem lies.

I encounter executives and managers daily who no longer seem able to make a decision by themselves. I see CEOs take a decision first to one group, then another, and maybe more. The decision drags out for months. The process resembles a fishing expedition, casting here and there, motoring around to different corners of the lake. The result is similar too: another day gone.

In a random, wandering process, decisions are rerouted or derailed entirely for all the wrong reasons and tremendous time is wasted while too many people are involved and endless meetings are held.

There is a huge difference between appreciating the value of achieving consensus and doing everything by consensus. Being consensus driven is the opposite, and equally extreme, position to being autocratic. Both are wasteful and problematic in any organization. A consensus driven manager takes pride in gathering people and running meetings, but they likely spend more money evaluating a purchase than the purchase price, more time talking about an option than it would take to just try it, more anxiety hoping to pave the way for a change than it would take to deal with the consequences. But the goal is not to be consensus driven; the goal is to achieve great results.

Being autocratic versus consensus driven is not a matter of personal style. There are times when managers should be autocratic, make a decision, and get on with things, and there are times when managers should delegate the entire decision to a group and get out of the picture completely. In between, there are countless variations. The point is to choose the approach that best fits the circumstances.

In making that choice, factors to consider are:

  • Time Available

    If the window of opportunity is short, a quick decision is essential. Sometimes it is more important to act than to wait for more information. For example, when a customer complains, the organization that can address the concern on the spot, makes the customer happiest. Or perhaps an opportunity pops up that requires an immediate response. He who deliberates loses. You may wish you could get more input but collecting information takes time.

    Ask yourself how the passage of time affects the situation and be sure you decide as quickly as needed.

  • Significance of the Decision

    The most important decisions deserve the best resources, the most rigorous process, and adequate time. The least important deserve as little as possible. You simply don't want to devote more resources than the decision warrants. You don't want expensive resources making trivial decisions. You don't want large groups leaving more important work to make decisions of limited consequence. And, even on an important decision, you don't want to devote resources to debating options A and B if the differences are inconsequential.

    How much money does it make sense to devote to the decision at hand? Allocate resources accordingly. A thorough understanding of the steps of the decision process will help you choose and allocate your resources effectively.

  • Knowledge

    If you don't possess the knowledge needed to make a decision, you have no choice but to get input from others or live with the consequences. This is where the arrogance of autocrats leads to stupid decisions. They make decisions they know nothing about. This is where the consensus driven managers waste time and money; they often fish for more opinions without thinking through the best way to identify and collect the most important knowledge and opinions. You will never have all the knowledge you need because their will always be unknowns.

    Who can best shed light on the most important aspects of the decision? Involve and focus those people accordingly. Just don't exceed the investment you decided was appropriate for the decision.

  • Need for Commitment

    Employees usually accept decisions, whether they agree with them or not, if they believe the decision process was fair and informed. To be seen as fair, a decision requires honest, open, and reasonable objectives and decision-makers who are dedicated to those objectives. To be seen as informed, the decision-makers must take into consideration important factors such as the impact on those affected by the decision.

    This does not mean every affected employee needs to be involved, but it does mean they need to believe their interests were well represented. Furthermore, it does not mean that everyone involved in a decision must be involved in every step of the decision. For example, senior management may establish priorities and limitations that will govern a decision (strategy and budgets), but others need to be involved in identifying the best implementation options.

    Who will be impacted, how they will be impacted, where is their input needed, and how can you obtain it? 

  • Employee Development

    Involving employees in decisions is a great way to develop their skills and understanding of the business. Furthermore, it can pave the way to delegating decisions entirely, which helps you move decisions lower in the organization where they likely belong.

    This may sound like an invitation to involve everyone in every decision but that would be at the expense of everything else they are supposed to be doing and impossible to follow up on effectively. Where does it makes sense to invest in employee development? What's the best way to achieve it? How much can you tackle at once? 

    Note: If you want to teach employees to become better decision-makers, be sure you model good decision-making practices yourself. This is particularly important with group decisions. There is no point in teaching employees how to flounder through decisions.

If you have gotten in the habit of making all decisions by consensus, it is time to step back and consider the cost each time you assemble a group for another rambling, inclusive meeting.

Related Articles:

5 Reasons Employees Avoid Making Decisions


© 2010 Ann Latham. All Rights Reserved.


Safety Accountability and Culture




The Gap Between Safety Rhetoric & Safety Commitment

By Barbara Semeniuk

Safety is like the weather. Folks love to talk about it but they don’t do much to change it. At least that’s the way with a lot of people in the business world. So when I hear management go out of their way to proclaim safety as the primary goal, I can only roll my eyes. As safety professionals, we need to ensure that the clients we serve back rhetoric with real action.

Safety Actions Speak Louder than Empty Words

I remember doing an audit at a major waste management company that was losing about $550 million a year from accidents. Workers were regularly getting killed on the job. The president of this company came out with a program: "Zero accidents is our goal." Let’s just say I was a bit skeptical.

They hired a crack team of safety experts in Canada who had CRSPs and a passion for doing the right thing. I admired their enthusiasm and optimism. And I figured they’d last 6 months. They actually made it to 9. Then they were all fired. Sadly, they were the victim of their own success. You see, they really were making a difference and doing what they believed they had been hired to do.

And that was the problem. They were working at a company with a culture that valued production goals over safety. In management’s eyes, $550 million and the loss of a few lives was a price worth paying. Even if they had been sincere about turning things around, the Zero Accidents thing was almost doomed to fail. Companies just don’t go from half a billion in losses to zero accidents in one fell swoop—unless they’re incredibly lucky. Sure enough, by January when the first accident occurred, the Zero Accident objective was out of reach. Appropriate, really.

Safety Performance Is About Results

Sadly, I’ve seen the scenario lots of times before. Another company in the tire business tried to convince me for 6 years that they really cared about health and safety. They had pictures of lions eating their prey and compared sales results to this process. I tried over and over again to persuade them to chase their safety numbers as aggressively as their sales quotas. I told them if they dedicated even a fraction of the same energy to safety, they’d be one of the best rather than worst safety performers in the industry.

It all fell on deaf ears. The company had a wonderful H&S officer who took exception to my audacity in actually questioning her safety program. Why, ours is the best safety program in the business, she insisted—KPIs, the latest theories in effective safety management, you name it.

But for all of the bells and whistles, workers were still getting injured on a regular basis. She became very angry when I pointed this out. You’re measuring the stores on sales, not safety numbers, I said. That’s why safety results aren’t reaching down to the store level. But we fine them $250 a month if they don’t comply with our H&S standards, she retorted. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Companies that don’t put their money where their mouth is when it comes to safety have a tendency to engage in audit shopping. They don’t believe auditors who point out the flaws in their programs and are persuaded that there must be something wrong with the audit process itself. So they look around for auditors who deliver the message they want to hear. Of course, that’s a message no honest auditor should ever be willing to deliver.


Safety is about results and accountability, not fancy policies and procedures. Heck, Enron had some of the finest corporate policies ever written against dishonesty and management malfeasance and we all know how that turned out. As a safety consultant, I can’t help but be cynical after all these years. And I fire clients. I only work for the companies that really do care about safety—the ones that measure performance objectively and hold people in the organization accountable for results. Thank goodness, there are still a few of those companies around.

What is your opinion about this issue? Is this a challenge? What are 10 of your biggest challenges in Health and Safety?

Please feel free to contact me with your feed-back. I can be reached at



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