The old-fashioned autocratic manager who ruled with an iron hand and controlled everything from the top has pretty much vanished from the management scene. Not many regret his passing. There is no doubt that today’s enterprises operate far more humanely than did their old school predecessors, at least on the surface.
Although “Theory X” management has been replaced in virtually all sectors, successor approaches have their own weaknesses. This brief article is intended to raise two ideas for your thoughtful consideration. The first is that distinctions exist between participatory management and consensus management. The second is that important consequences flow from those distinctions.
Participatory management and consensus management practitioners both understand that employees have perspectives that are potentially valuable to the decision-making process and that “buy in” plays a vital motivational role with real consequences for performance. Beyond this initial point of agreement, distinctions emerge. To put the matter in perspective, consider the extent to which you agree or disagree with each of the following assumption statements.
- Obtaining agreement among stakeholders should be the controlling consideration when reaching a decision that affects the organization, regardless of the issue.
- All ideas have equal merit.
- Everyone’s contribution should be given equal weight in the decision process, regardless of expertise or responsibilities.
- The best interest of the organization is always equal to the sum of the best interests of its departments and stakeholders.
Participatory managers recognize a foundational management principle; i.e., authority can be delegated but responsibility cannot. Participatory managers seek input from all whose views can benefit the process. However, final decision-making is reserved to those who ultimately bear the responsibility for the decision.
Consensus managers, on the other hand, start with the proposition that agreement among stakeholders must be obtained before action proceeds, a position that is intellectually defensible only if one believes all of the bulleted assumptions listed above to be true. Now consider the consequences of those assumptions.
- Decision-making becomes a political process instead of a merit-based process with the pace and outcome controlled by the least flexible and most obdurate participants.
- Consensus management is inherently biased toward inaction. All that is necessary to block any action is to prevent consensus. Self-evidently, this characteristic is not conducive to success in a competitive environment defined by fast-paced change.
- Decision quality is degraded, at least from a business perspective. That is because the goal becomes identifying a solution that is the least offensive to all stakeholders rather than choosing the course of action that is most beneficial to the enterprise.
- An inevitable consequence of using consensus as a surrogate for the executive function in an organization designed to operate as a hierarchy is a diminution of the very concept of accountability. When everyone is responsible, no one is accountable.
This is not to say that consensus management is never a good idea. In an organization of true peers, all of whom share a common skill set, the same organizational perspective, and an identical stake in the decision outcome, it may well work. That description, however, does not apply to the typical management team.
It has been our observation that consensus decision-making is strongly associated with the presence of information silos and organizational gridlock. All executives and managers would be well advised to consider how the current choice of decision-making models is affecting the quality and timeliness of management action.