3 Things That Kill Consensus (and What to Do Instead)

To build a proper base of support, you're going to have to start spending a lot more time around the water cooler.

I love analyzing workplace dynamics. In my career as a manager and director at companies both large and small, I've made some colossal mistakes. But I also succeeded in building up small teams that started with just a handful of employees into a multi-faceted department. 

Often, the "team" started with a germ of an idea, not with actual human beings or a budget. By building consensus, I was able to develop the idea, gain support from peers, and start hiring people--sometimes by adding entire cubicle farms.

The process is not easy. I'm convinced that people generally want to learn about new ideas and will help fan the flame, but they are also looking for any red flags and don't need too much encouragement to change their minds and start vocalizing their disapproval. It's not like you are dealing with red states and blue states. At work, you're dealing with people who are generally headed in the same direction, trying to build a company, but do have their own judgements about what works and what doesn't work. Your employees, the board of directors, investors, and even your family all have an opinion that can shift slightly in your favor--or against your wishes.

The key to building consensus is to constantly notice these momentum shifts. It's not like steering a yacht on the ocean. It's more like trolling in a lake where the undercurrents are not as obvious and your subtle re-directions are even more critical. (To take the fishing metaphor even further--you never want to make abrupt changes in course. That jostling causes everyone to wonder what you're trying to do and, besides, it ruins your chances of catching anything.)

Read on for an explainer on how consensus forms--and a few strategies to help you avoid kiling it, especially when you're trying to build rapidly.

How Consensus Forms

1. Let the seeds of an idea grow.

First, you have to realize that consensus forms at the water cooler. I remember trying to build a writing team (twice--at two different companies) from the ground up. I'd sometimes catch another manager in the hallway and start chatting. I'd mention something about my team creating a help system for their app or assisting with an instructional video. It wasn't a formal proposal. It was my way of planting a few seeds and letting the idea germinate. It was amazing to sit in a budget meeting and have that same manager speak up in my favor. That initial support led to consensus.

2. Find the champions.

It's important to find out who is on your side. I still remember an exec named Scott who had a clear understanding of my team and what we did. It helped that we had hit a homerun with one of his own projects, helping him develop a CRM strategy by summarizing and then communicating about some fairly complex ideas. He experienced our services and became a big ally. I met with him a few times after the project was over and kept reminding him about what we did right, and he eventually started advertising our services unannounced. He became a fellow consensus builder.

3. Don't overlook anyone.

It's easy to overlook people who seem to lack the power to influence. I learned early on to champion an idea I believed in with anyone and everyone. I'd let the overnight cleaning crew know about my team; I'd tell random delivery drivers. I was quite motivated. (It helped that I had young kids at home during this time--I needed to feed them!) Consensus is far-reaching and involves people at all levels of a company. It's too easy to focus on the big hitters and get their buy-in while the "lowly" employees all complain to each other and quietly ruin your chances of getting any momentum for your idea.

How Consensus Dies

1. Minor dissatisfactions go unaddressed.

Minor conflicts you don't address can kill consensus. Dissatisfaction is one of the most interesting social dynamics in business. As they say, mutiny does not happen overnight. In fact, mutiny is the result of bad seeds growing over time, those minor issues that go unaddressed over time. You don't charge into a meeting and find out that everyone is suddenly against an idea. Something happened with the plan weeks or months ago--you offended someone by suggesting their team was not doing a good job and you had a better plan, or you never resolved a minor dispute over a new project.

2. There is one major dissenter.

Often, there is one person killing an idea and stopping it from going anywhere. Time and time again, I hit a roadblock as I built up my team at a large company. His name was Tom. For some reason, he was strongly against having writers and designers help with software development and thought the coders could handle this chore on their own. Part of my solution at the time was to just press on--and not get overly distracted. However, I also spent a fair amount of time confronting him and trying to change his mind. I knew he was an outspoken critic. That ruined the consensus process because he was actively against the idea.

3. The problem might be you.

In some cases, the consensus killer is not everyone else; it is you. One of the most interesting realizations I had when I was building these teams had to do with my own abilities and skills. I was not always the best consensus builder. For starters, I'm an introvert, so I sometimes had a hard time getting all jazzed up about the team. It turns out there was a pretty deep well under the surface that was motivating me (besides the kids I mentioned) and I managed to still succeed in building the teams. Yet, if you are constantly failing at consensus building, you might try enlisting people who have different gifts. By letting someone else build the consensus, you'll achieve the same results.

IMAGE: Getty Images
Last updated: May 13, 2014

JOHN BRANDON | Columnist

John Brandon is a contributing editor at Inc. magazine covering technology. He writes the Tech Report column for Inc.com.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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