The Altar of Consensus

For obvious reasons, American nonprofit organizations spend a great deal of time worshiping at the altar of consensus. In a system that is so heavily dependent upon contributed dollars and fundraising to do its work, there is a tendency to avoid any actions or decisions that would irritate one donor constituency or another. Thus, when disagreements arise regarding policy or direction the inclination of leadership is to pursue the course of least resistance, lest any particular stakeholder group or philanthropist become alienated. Over time, the net effect of doing business this way is that disagreement becomes something to be avoided and consensus something to be worshipped.

In this milieu controversies spend more time under the rug, than out in the light of day. Senior leaders resist tackling critical issues, preferring instead to kick the proverbial can down the road when things get too hot.

I fully understand why nonprofits would rather avoid provocative issues than confront them. Most people are conflict averse. And particularly when we are trying to do something good for society, why would anyone willingly take on an issue that can just as well be left alone? After all, if we ignore conflict long enough, perhaps, it will just go away.

The problem, however, is that conflict avoidance is not leadership. Consensus often becomes an artificial construct that masks important issues and prevents real challenges from being addressed. In the process people become disaffected, pivotal matters get shoved aside, and the “peace” we think we have turns out to be an illusion.

Today, there is a considerable body of evidence to suggest that conflict free organizations are not more effective. Indeed, when conflict is embraced and managed, not avoided, organizations make better, more creative decisions.

In the nonprofit arena, diversity of opinions and perspectives are built into the very essence of what we do. Talented leaders are destined to have different takes on critical issues. It is important to explore those differences and not rush to force a conclusion. The more time we spend in honest, open, and sometimes impassioned, debate the greater the impact we will have once a final decision is made. Of course, we want consensus at some point, but not at the expense of meaningful and respectful disagreements. While it is often expedient to rush through a controversial discussion without laying bare some of the underlying issues, this is an unwise strategy over the long term.

Nonprofit leaders would do well to consider the insights of two great thinkers on this subject. The first, Alfred P. Sloan, Jr. (1875-1966), was the long-time President and CEO of General Motors. Rather than avoiding conflict, here’s what Sloan told his people, “I propose we postpone further discussion … to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about.”

The great coach and teacher of leadership, Peter Drucker (1909-2005) echoed a similar sentiment. Drucker, who wrote extensively about nonprofit and corporate organizations, said:

The first rule in decision-making is that one does not make a decision unless there is disagreement …

If you have consensus on an important matter, don’t make the decision. Adjourn it so that everybody has a little time to think. Important decisions are risky. They should be controversial. Acclamation means that nobody has done the homework.

No organization can exist in a perpetual state of tension. But the best ones are in no rush to worship at the altar of consensus. Before jumping to make a conflict-free decision, take the time to fully explore divergent opinions. You and your organization will be much happier in the long run.

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