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How to Drive Consensus: 7 Secrets

One of the hardest and most important things a leader does is bringing a team of highly intelligent and highly opinionated people to consensus.

There's probably no such thing as an established definition of the word leadership, but I'll tell you what it means to me: The ability to get people moving in a single direction. Perhaps the most critical test of leadership ability in a business environment is in driving consensus.

When you've got a management team made up of highly intelligent, highly opinionated people, let me tell you, building consensus can be remarkably challenging, to say the least. Especially when it's a critical decision on a controversial topic. Even more so when it means things may have to change. Nobody likes to change.

Having done this sort of thing I don't know how many times, here's a seven-step process that seems to work remarkably well.

1. Know who you're dealing with.

You may think that everyone's on the same team so their goals are aligned. It would be nice if that was true, but it almost never is. Sure, they may say they're aligned, but everyone has their own agenda. It's not as nefarious as it sounds. After all, it's natural to want to protect your domain.

Since you may be a consultant and the group may not report to you, get to know them individually and try to identify their interests in the matter at hand. Ideally, you want to know exactly what you're up against right out of the gate.

2. Lay it all out.

You might think that staying in control is critical to the process. Indeed, that's true, but the way to achieve that isn't by being authoritative. Pulling rank is a last resort because it can really piss people off, turn them against you, and create passive aggressive behavior that can derail the process.

Instead, make the team feel like it's their process by sharing with them exactly what you plan to do, solicit feedback, and explain why it all makes sense to do it this way. That's your first test. If you can't get them to agree on the process, you're going to have one hell of a time getting them to agree on a decision.

3. Get to the bottom of it.

One way or another, you have to get the complete, unadulterated truth about the situation at hand before you get too far down the path. That usually means meeting with folks one-on-one in confidence as opposed to grilling people in front of their peers. You'd be amazed what people will tell you one-on-one if you ask the right questions and appear genuinely interested in their story.

Once you have a pretty clear picture of what's going on, you should be able to at least reach your own conclusion about how you'd like to see things go down. It's a lot easier to engineer a process to bring folks to consensus if you know the conclusion you're trying to get them to reach. It's not essential, but very, very helpful.

4. Bring out the outliers.

It's a good idea to let the outliers--the highly opinionated folks on either side of the equation--have their say before you get too far down the path of making your arguments. The reason is twofold.

If you draw them out early, you and everyone else can start to get comfortable with who feels or believes what. That, and letting people have a voice, relieves tension and contention, as well. Once the hot stuff is out on the table, everyone will breath a sigh of relief.

Also, if you suspect there will be some tough nuts to crack, then you might consider doing some behind the scenes work. That means getting a few allies on board so, when the time comes to debate, the outlier stands out. It's a lot harder to hold your ground when everyone else is saying the same thing. Peer pressure can be a powerful motivator, even for executives.

5. Make it logical.

There are two types of arguments that work in driving consensus. I like to use both in sort of a one-two punch method. The first is a logical or quantitative argument that will appeal to so-called left-brain people. Make sure you've done your homework, your research, whatever, and give it to them straight. It's hard to refute hard data.

Keep one thing in mind. If you're going to be selective about what you present and how you present it, be aware that you might be called on it. There had better be a very good reason why you're presenting A and omitting B. Remember, this is the argument that's supposed to appeal to the logical folks. So it damn well better be logical.

6. Make it personal.

Of course, the second type of argument is an emotional or qualitative one. But the method I use to accomplish that is not so obvious. If at all possible, I like to use specific anecdotes or words directly out of the mouths of credible individuals to really get my point across and hit people right between the eyes. The key, of course, is to choose the juiciest and most hard-hitting stories or quotes.   

For example, if you're taking a management team through a strategic planning process and there's a specific direction you'd like the company to take, this would be the time to quote some key analysts, pundits, employees, and customers, as appropriate. Even if the sources are anonymous, when people hear what folks they perceive to be experts or key stakeholders have to say, that has a powerful effect that can sway viewpoints.

7. Close the deal.

Obviously there's going to be debate throughout the process but most of it should have worked itself out by the time you've finished your quantitative and qualitative analysis. By then, heads should be nodding more or less in the same direction.

At that point, make sure you close the deal by declaring a Plan of Record or POR. Make sure everyone knows it's their plan, not yours. Document it. End of story.

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Last updated: Feb 26, 2013

STEVE TOBAK | Columnist

Steve Tobak is a management consultant, an executive coach, and a former senior executive of the technology industry. He's managing partner of Invisor Consulting, a Silicon Valley-based strategy consulting firm. Contact Tobak; follow him on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

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



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