Consensus or Command Management? Here’s Why Neither One Works

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Throughout my whole career I kept hearing discussions about consensus vs. command leadership, and they always rubbed me the wrong way.

What actually works was never such a mystery to me.

The problem is that people would talk about consensus or command as the only two choices for management style.

“Nice” organizations who moved too slow were dismissed as “consensus-driven,” and nasty, aggressive organizations that bullied people and got results leaving a trail of casualties — had leaders who were seen as “commanding.”

What does work

What works is simply this:

  1. Listen to everyone to get the most robust and complete input;
  2. Allow the decision maker to make the decision;
  3. Then, move forward.

The problem with “Consensus” leadership/management — “Consensus” breaks down when the discussion never moves past the input and discussion phase. It breaks down because leaders wait for everyone to agree before moving forward. Everyone will never agree.

You get stuck. Or, you go so slow you become irrelevant.

The problem with “Command” leadership/management —  “Command” breaks down when you make a clear, quick decision and just give orders without letting anyone speak their mind and share their opinions and knowledge.

When you seek no input, people don’t buy in, they don’t know what to do next, and they don’t feel respected. So, they are not motivated to move forward quickly.

You can still end up stuck, or moving too slowly, even though you were “very clear” in what you commanded.

Command is sometimes necessary. It becomes the only option if you have a crisis and very limited time — when you simply don’t have time to get input.

Get input, make a decision

If you have time to get input, you are always better off to have the discussion, encourage the debate — and then make a decision. I once had a new staff which was used to the consensus-oriented, “don’t-act-until-everyone-agrees-or-basically-never” school of management.

I remember, after a heated discussion, the first time I pointed to he person on my team who owned the decision and said, “OK, you’ve heard all or our input, it’s your decision; what do you decide?”

Everyone was stunned. “Can we really DO that?” They couldn’t believe that we were allowed to stop talking and move forward. It’s the technique I have always used.

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The keys to moving forward:

  • Don’t let the bad rap on “consensus” management prevent you from getting input.
  • And, don’t let the bad rap on “command” prevent you from making a decision once you have the input.

DEBATE or GO

A great, simple tool I use to encourage this style of management is a the model of Debate Phase vs. Go Phase. For every initiative or decision, there is DEBATE time and there is GO time.

Debate time — During debate time, I make it clear that I want to hear people’s opinions. I want to hear the arguments. I want everyone to fight for their point of view. That’s how I get the best and most complete information.

After debate time is over, I make it clear who owns the decision, and make sure the decision gets made.

Go time — Then I make it clear that we are in GO time. The decision is communicated and the action is officially kicked off. This is the time to engage in the work, not in the debate. The debate phase is over.

Expectations and trust

This simple frame and set of labels builds an atmosphere of higher trust because people can understand the rules of the game.

By setting this structure, you can make it clear that during debate time, the expected and valued behavior is to speak up.

Then once you announce the decision has been made and make it clear that it’s GO time, people trust that you will stick to the decision, and that the expected and valued behavior is action, not more talking.

Moving forward:  If you want more ideas to get your organization moving forward you can learn about the strategy work I do with leadership teams.

Patty Azzarello is the founder and CEO of Azzarello Group. She's also an executive, best-selling author, speaker and CEO/business advisor. She became the youngest general manager at HP at the age of 33, ran a billion dollar software business at 35, and became a CEO for the first time at 38 (all without turning into a self-centered, miserable jerk). You can find her at patty@azzarellogroup.com .

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