The old-fashioned autocratic manager who ruled with an iron fist and controlled everything from the top has all but disappeared from the managerial scene. Not many mourn his passing. There’s no question that today’s businesses operate much more humanely than their old-school predecessors, at least on the surface.
Although “Theory X” management has been superseded in virtually every industry, later approaches have their own weaknesses. This short article is intended to raise two ideas for your consideration. The first is that there are distinctions between participatory management and management by consensus. The second is that important consequences follow from these distinctions.
Both participatory management and consensus management practitioners understand that employees have perspectives that are potentially valuable to the decision-making process and that “accepting” 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 assumptions.
- Obtaining agreement among interested parties should be the controlling consideration in reaching a decision that affects the organization, regardless of the issue.
- All ideas have equal merit.
- Everyone’s contribution should have equal weight in the decision process, regardless of experience or responsibilities.
- The best interest of the organization is always equal to the sum of the best interests of its departments and stakeholders.
Participative managers recognize a fundamental management principle; that is, authority can be delegated but responsibility cannot. Participative managers seek input from all those whose views may benefit the process. However, the final decision-making is reserved for those who ultimately take responsibility for the decision.
Consensus managers, on the other hand, start with the proposition that agreement must be obtained among the stakeholders before proceeding to action, a position that is intellectually defensible only if one believes that all of the assumptions listed above are true. Now consider the consequences of those assumptions.
- Decision-making becomes a political process rather than a merit-based process with the pace and outcome controlled by the less flexible and more stubborn participants.
- Consensus management is inherently biased towards inaction. All it takes to block any action is to prevent consensus. Clearly, this trait is not conducive to success in a competitive environment defined by rapid change.
- Decision quality is degraded, at least from a business perspective. This is because the goal becomes identifying a solution that is least offensive to all stakeholders rather than choosing the course of action that is most beneficial to the business.
- An inevitable consequence of using consensus as a substitute 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 responsible.
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 interest in the outcome of the decision, it can work well. 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 stagnation. All executives and managers would do well to consider how the current choice of decision-making models is affecting the quality and timing of managerial action.