What is Consensus?
Consider the following continuum, and select the point at which you feel you have reached agreement on a proposal in your own school:
We have arrived at a consensus in our school when:
- All of us can embrace the proposal.
- All of us can endorse the proposal.
- All of us can live with the proposal.
- All of us can agree not to sabotage the proposal.
- We have a majority – at least 51 percent – in support of the proposal.
If you have not done so already, pause for a brief minute and think about where your definition of consensus falls on the continuum.
The above survey is taken directly from Learning by Doing, by Richard DuFour, Rebecca DuFour, Robert Eaker, and Thomas Many. When they have disseminated the survey to staff, the most common outcome has been “a staff distributed all along the continuum because members do not have consensus on the definition of consensus” (p. 227).
The authors go on to explain that a group has arrived at consensus when:
- All points of view have not been merely heard, but actively solicited.
- The will of the group is evident even to those who most oppose it. (p. 228)
The Importance of Consensus
When making significant decisions within a school or district, the importance of obtaining consensus cannot be overstated. Actions without consensus can result in (1) initiatives falling flat on their face and leaders wondering what the heck happened, and (2) teachers (and possibly administrators) being responsible for what the heck happened, while at the same time building resentment for those in control.
As stated by Kerry Patterson, Josh Grenny, David Maxfield, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler in Crucial Accountability, “A solution that is tactically inferior, but has the full commitment of those who implement it, may be more effective that one that is tactically superior but is resisted by those who have to make it work” (p. 147).
No matter the case, when attempting to move a school or district forward, the idea of consensus must be broached in one way or another. The change agent can:
- Actively seek consensus: In general, the preferred approach and what will most likely lead to sustainable change.
- Disregard obtaining consensus: In general, typical of top-down initiatives.
- Railroad consensus: Provides the illusion one is obtaining consensus while only being interested in getting her way.
5 Ways Your Consensus Could be Railroaded
For the purpose of this post, let’s focus on #3, railroading consensus. In my opinion, this is the option that tends to regularly fly under the radar, as it can take place without those involved even knowing it.
Five ways to railroad consensus are:
- Offering your ideas from a position of power, and then giving others a chance to disagree: According to Crucial Accountability, this approach does not work because (1) the person in power cuts off new thinking by first filling others’ heads with her ideas, and (2) is making it known what she desires, so others are unlikely to disagree. Once the one-sided discussion is finished (if a discussion happens at all), the leader falsely cries “Consensus!”
If you were part of an organization where conformity is encouraged (and dissension is frowned upon), how quick would you be to offer dissenting/alternative ideas?
- You pretend to involve others because it “looks good,” but ultimately you manipulate people/the situation to think as you do: In Crucial Accountability, the authors state, “The problem comes when this person attempts to pass off his or her opinions as an involvement opportunity…Involve others in solving ability blocks only if you’re willing to listen to their suggestions” (p. 151). In a way, it is a guessing game as to what the leader wants, with accurate guesses magically transforming into consensus.
One sneakier approach is when the leader allows for everyone to have their say and then announces the direction that she wishes to take. Unbeknownst to everyone else, this is where they were going to end up no matter what was brought to the table.
- You are generating a false sense of urgency: In instances such as these, an issue arises during a particular meeting and for some reason it has to be solved right then and there (either because a general feeling of impatience is present and/or because some type of false timeline has been concocted). Coincidentally, the person who brings up the problem in the first place – the leader – already has an answer in her back pocket. So, a path is chosen without real time to: investigate what is really going on, research best practice, involve more stakeholders, etc.
The leader can make it appear as if she is doing everyone a favor by removing a problem from their plates, when in reality it is all about getting her way. Often times, the stakeholders who are present do not end up realizing the ramifications of what has taken place until it is too late.
- You rule with an iron first: There are in fact leaders with histories of attempting to embarrass and/or lash out vindictively at any of their dissenters. Generally, dissension is interpreted (or misinterpreted) as disrespect or non-compliance.
Worst-case scenario is when such a leader has miraculously risen to the top (or near the top) of an organization, and is therefore able to hide behind her job title. In occurrences such as these, it is not even worth attempting to weigh in with your own opinions. So, the leader explains what she wants and everyone (eventually) conforms because (1) it is just not worth the trouble and (2) it is a “fight” that cannot be won because decisions are made based on job title, not by what is best for students.
- You lie and/or manipulate facts/research: With this approach, the leader is clearly talking over her head, is digging herself deeper and deeper, but those who are not well versed on the current topic might not recognize what is happening. Crucial Accountability mentions how newly appointed leaders are more likely to fall into this trap because they are trying to prove their worth and might take things too far.
I should also point out the potential danger of leaders talking with a convincing tone on topics about which they are far from knowledgeable. About a month ago, an educator from another district and I had an in-depth conversation in regards to how damaging this type of communication (or miscommunication) can be to an organization.
In the End
When it comes to establishing consensus, there is a colossal difference between not disagreeing and agreeing.
As an administrator, If I constantly find myself going around announcing something to the effect of, “This is what we agreed on,” I should ask myself what we really means. Did I genuinely seek consensus with everyone contributing as equals, or did I simply begin with my end in mind and then assist others in arriving at my destination.
What are your thoughts on the idea of railroading consensus? Am I completely off the mark, or is this something to which you can relate? Or does reality fall somewhere in between?
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