Getting beyond yes

Often, when I ask clients how they make decisions, I hear, “Oh, we mostly use consensus around here.”

Danger, Will Robinson, Danger!

Eight times out of ten, these are the same people who also note that group decisions often get reversed, people say one thing and then do another, or that their team spins and spins when they discuss potential decisions, investing loads of precious time but getting nowhere. What I often see is that “consensus” means a decision process that’s unclear or a wee bit sloppy, where the boss ended things with, “Oh, we’re out of time – but we’re all in agreement here, right?” But no one dug deeply for different points of view or concerns, let alone truly addressed them.

People have plenty of good reasons NOT to tell you when they have a different perspective. Hierarchy, job security, fear of being the new guy or gal, trouble getting a word in edgewise when they’re surrounded by extroverts, “confrontation” gives them hives… Agreement – especially superficial or assumed agreement, or agreement under pressure – is NOT the same thing as commitment. If genuine commitment is what you want, you have to give people a chance to get their perspectives and concerns out on the table. And demonstrate that you’ve heard them.

So here’s a tool that changes things. It’s for decisions the group needs to make together and, used properly, actually drives the kind of productive interaction that is necessary for people to walk out committed to a decision. I learned it from Jim Cutler of Monitor and use it often. Here’s how it works:

Levels of agreement
After clear, distinct alternatives are proposed and openly discussed, a specific proposal is made and everyone declares the nature of their agreement:
• Fully agree (I agree, have no concerns, will fully support)
• Agree with reservations (I agree, though I have some concerns that I’ve addressed and they have been discussed and addressed to my satisfaction, I think we should move forward and I fully support)
• Disagree but support (I disagree with the direction/decision, but have had a chance to air my point of view, I feel fully heard, and while I disagree I will bow to the collective wisdom of the group and fully support)
• Disagree and cannot support

It’s the parentheticals that really drive how the group engages. If everyone in the room knows that support from those with different perspectives will only come if we listen to their perspectives, address them, and make sure they feel fully heard, you can bet everyone’s “serial monologues” will diminish in the interest of moving forward. Instead of team members repeatedly launching their own point of view, they make it their business to mine for others’.

• Give the group a heads-up before diving in – talk through the levels of agreement and how you’ll ask for them after the conversation winds down.
• When you are done, check one by one for level of agreement. When you hear, “Agree with reservations,” hear those reservations. They can lead to last-minute upgrades of the solution.

Have you used this tool, or one like it? Any other tips to share?

One thought on “Getting beyond yes

  1. This gradation of agreement echos Donella Meadows’s 12 leverage points for intervening in systems (outlined in ‘Thinking in Systems: A Primer’).

    In both cases, just knowing about the gradation allows for a more nuanced conversation.

    Taking the time to define/explore the gray area in between has great merit.

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