Leadership: Seeking Consensus and Leading Through Impasse

Practical Steps When Efforts to Reach Consensus Fall Short

The Pursuit of Consensus. Win-win solutions. I rarely encounter a leader who doesn’t express a desire to make decisions in a way that builds shared ownership by reaching consensus. And yet so many struggle to be effective in that pursuit to the point that they begin to become cynical about the concept and see it as weak or indecisive.

It’s not hard to understand why consensus is important. Most work processes and organizational business models involve the integration of multiple functions or entities in an operating system designed to deliver an outcome that none of the participants could accomplish as well on their own. For such interdependent systems to succeed over time, it is necessary that the essential requirements of each participant are met even as the group pursues the “system” goal. Collaboration is not just a cultural characteristic. It is a business necessity.

It is also not hard to understand why so many struggle to reach consensus. There are a number of reasons but these are, in my experience, the most typical:

  • It takes time to engage multiple parties in a design process that seeks to address the needs of all parties while advancing the common goal. Using power to drive to a solution that meets the needs of one or some at the expense of others can be more expedient but the risk is that the solution unravels once those “others” can equalize the power or find alternatives;
  • It’s complicated. When the system involves numerous players, it is challenging to choreograph a design process in which the parties are engaged together. In such cases leaders often substitute “input” for participation. Using that input, they seek to come up with a balanced solution that reflects respect for all parties. The problem is that the solution in many cases looks nothing like the “input” provided by any of the parties. Each party, understandably, suggests the outcome that works best for them while the leader tries to reconcile the needs of all. This mismatch can result in a response that goes something like: “Why did you ask for my input if you were going to ignore it?”
  • We aren’t very good at it: There is a skill to building consensus that is quite different from the skill set most leaders learn early in life. As we grow up we learn a lot about the effective use of power and influence, the skills of competition, not collaboration. We become effective at advocating all the reasons why our solution is superior. We know how to seek allies and use leverage.  We use information and expertise to gain advantage.  The skills required for building consensus are quite different. It requires deep listening to understand the needs and fears that lie behind stated positions. It demands innovation to enlarge the array of alternative solutions to include radically different ideas.  It requires prototyping, simulating, testing and revising. It is a process built on creativity, not power.
  • We get stuck at “good faith” impasse: Even when all parties are committed to the common goal, seek to understand and address the essential needs of all, and engage in a creative process, there is no guarantee that a dovetailing solution will emerge. It is quite plausible that the parties will have differing views or assumptions about key factors in the decision process.  When this happens, groups often get stuck and, unless they are skillful at moving through the impasse, can quickly decompensate. They begin to question the commitment of one another to the common goal. They revert to power based tactics in an effort to prevail over their “opponents.” When the party in the most powerful position prevails, those whose needs were not addressed can be resentful, and trust among the parties damaged.  So, what can be done when parties come to an impasse? Is there a way to move forward and still preserve trust and a collaborative relationship? Here are a few easy steps you might try.Moving Through Impasse.  The first and most important step to moving through impasse effectively is to recognize that you have reached that point and persist in dialogue to understand why. While this sounds obvious, this is the point at which most efforts at building consensus come off the track. As time passes and frustration builds, it is almost irresistible for doubts to creep in about the other parties and their intentions. Especially if the parties have not worked closely together in the past or, worse yet, were at one time adversaries.

Here is an alternative to choosing that path:

  • “Step outside” the conversation and observe what is happening: Reassert a belief in the good faith of all parties. Avoid making up “stories” about others’ intentions and instead seek to understand. Reassert the common goal of the group and the importance of what is at stake for all parties. Restate your commitment to the relationship.
  • Drill down to get to the source of your disagreement: Acting on the presumption of good faith, seek to find and understand the source of disagreement. Drill down to get to the underlying assumptions and beliefs that make mutual agreement unachievable.
  • Seek to resolve the difference of opinion in some objective fashion: The most effective way to move through impasse to dovetailing agreement is by getting to a common understanding on underlying assumptions and beliefs. There are a variety of options by which this might be accomplished, such as:
    • Speak with others who have addressed the issue
    • Perform additional research or analysis
    • Develop and test a prototype
    • Identify a mutually-respected third party expert
  • Take steps to positively impact the key assumptions: Explore options to favorably impact the key assumptions. Worry whether the market react favorably?  Take steps to communicate and educate the market.  Will we have capacity to address the demand? Build a contingency plan to respond quickly to variation in projections. Anticipate what might go wrong and take steps to prevent, if possible, and prepare.
  • If the difference can’t be resolved or mitigated, recognize that a judgment must be made. Acknowledge that remaining “stuck” is not an acceptable alternative. Determine the person best positioned to make the necessary judgment based on experience or expertise. Define the critical metrics by which to measure success, including the key concerns and fears of those whose beliefs and assumptions did not prevail in the discussion. Ask for and expect commitment on the part of all to use best efforts to make the decision successful, even those who disagreed.
  • Track outcomes following implementation of the decision. The best way to show genuine respect for those whose point of view did not prevail is to measure actual experience against their assumptions and adjust accordingly. Great leaders aren’t afraid to admit they were wrong. Rather than eroding their power, it adds to their credibility and strengthens trust which is the foundation of effective collaboration.  Make a plan to respond appropriately if their fears or assumptions turn out to be true.

Building consensus is inescapably hard but a critical skill in the complexity of today’s health care environment.  For most leaders, it involves “unlearning” old habits of advocacy and power and “relearning” new behaviors designed to promote partnership and creativity.  Those who master these skills have the ability to leverage the collective strength of key relationships to help meet the challenge of health care transformation. MEDI Leadership has helped numerous clients build demonstrated proficiency in these new behaviors through our individual and team coaching programs.  Let us know if you would like to learn more.