Lead your team to a consensus, not conflict

Published by Peter on

If there’s one thing that will make me run screaming from a meeting, it’s when a group starts wordsmithing something by committee.

It’s not because I’m a lifelong writer who’s put in my 10,000 hours several times over.

It’s because after the first person says, “I think…” the whole exercise devolves into a conflict of opinions.

I see this all the time in meetings that lack clear direction. It happened just the other day. I watched from the sidelines as a group of highly intelligent, highly capable, highly motivated people devolved into frustration and confusion over a minor point that was not even part of the agenda.

I’m sure you’ve witnessed this. You’ve probably been guilty of throwing fuel on the fire at some points. Most of us are at one time or another.

It’s the leader’s job to rein it in and focus.

What snacks should we serve at the conference?

This was not the topic of the meeting I was in, but it mirrors our topic exactly and is one I’ve seen in countless volunteer event committees.

What snacks should we serve at the conference?

piles of snacks on a table at a business conference
They’d better be good.
Image created by Adobe Express generative AI.

The committee is planning a day-long conference of 150 people. Planning is going well. Until someone asks what seems like an innocuous question but which is, in fact, a hand grenade wrapped in a candy shell.

“What kind of snacks will they have at the morning break?”

The meeting leader answers, “I’ll find out what the conference center has on their menu.”

That should be it. Everyone should move on to the next topic.

But dysfunction has a way of slipping into the cracks. In that tiny gap of time where the meeting leader is writing their note to look up the menu, someone innocently adds what they think is a helpful and benign opinion.

“I think it should be something healthy.”

And away we go.

“Healthy is great, but people need a pick-me up to get them to lunch.”

“I hate kale chips. Don’t have kale chips.”

“We could do a combination of granola bars and vegetables.”

“Vegetables in packages or just out on a tray? Do they even have space there for a buffet type thing?”

“There? Wait, where will the snacks be served?”

“I think we should serve a full breakfast and skip the snack.”

“Last year people liked the snacks we had. Let’s not change anything.”

“Is that what the survey said?”

“I didn’t actually see the survey results, but people told me they liked the snacks. Do we have the survey results?”

“Let me look that up. Give me a minute.”

“People told me they didn’t eat the snacks because they had an allergy.”

“That’s not what people told me. A lot of people need snacks. People like snacks.”

And so it goes, spinning farther and farther and farther off its axis like an unbalanced washing machine threatening to rattle itself to pieces.

a washing machine rattling itself to pieces
Better preparation could have prevented this.
Image created by Adobe Express generative AI.

Why you need to break this cycle and move on

This kind of dysfunction isn’t just a distraction and waste of time. It can actually build resentment and disenfranchisement among the people involved because it only ends one of three ways:

  1. The discussion finds a balance, and a consensus arises. Hooray! Right? Not so fast. You don’t want people to get used to decisions being made by opinion consensus. Opinion consensus only works when all the opinions are based in knowledge and expertise, and the discussion is well regulated and structured.
  2. The leader arbitrarily picks one side over the others to break the spin cycle. The losers will feel unheard, disrespected, and less-than. The losers may also start imagining other ways the leader has been shutting them down, and will begin seeing disrespect in future interactions.
  3. The discussion fizzles without resolution. Everyone feels the discord and frustration of conflict without the joy of progress. Worse, the “resolution” usually is to assign someone to lead a committee and have another meeting about snack selection, throwing inefficiency on top of ineffectiveness.

How to break the cycle and move on

The techniques to manage meetings are not a mystery or magical. Just search the internet for how to keep a meeting on track, and you’ll find a gazillion articles telling you the basics.

Knowing what to do and doing it are two different things, though. Like so many things, success comes down to preparation, practice, and discipline. Throw in a little self-assessment for continual improvement.

The meeting that I was in the other day spun out of control because of poor preparation and poor discipline… on everyone’s part. So how could we have avoided that, and how could we have intercepted it and gotten things back on track?

Here’s what the internet told me, with some thoughts of my own mixed in.

Before the meeting

  • Prepare a clear, detailed agenda and distribute it well before the meeting.
  • On the agenda, set clear times for each item.
  • Set the expectation that everyone should come prepared.
  • Remind people of the meeting with enough lead time for them to prepare.

During the meeting

  • At the beginning, set the expectation that the meeting must stay on agenda and on time. Ask everyone to be committed to that goal.
  • Facilitate actively. Keep each discussion focused on the current agenda item.
  • Enlist allies. If you can’t facilitate and manage time, then assign a timekeeper or someone who will be responsible for interrupting when things start to slide.
  • Use tactful language when keeping people on task. Focus your words on the shared goal of keeping on track rather than on the people or topic creating the discord. “I’d like to bring this back to the main topic.”
  • Keep to the published agenda if at all possible. Switching segments around is a signal that the agenda never really mattered in the first place, so go ahead and talk about whatever you want to bring up whenever you feel like it.

Acting like a leader

  • Be assertive. If your role is to lead or facilitate the meeting, then lead and facilitate. For people-pleasers and consensus-builders, this can be difficult.
  • Delegate. Assign participants to lead different parts of the meeting, as appropriate. This puts other participants in the leader seat, and that may help them learn to be a better follower in future meetings. (Delegate well in advance of the meeting; don’t spring it on people when they don’t expect it.)
  • Appreciate and acknowledge everyone’s contributions. Summarize what was said. Everyone wants to feel heard, especially when they have to overcome extreme discomfort to speak up. This can have the added benefit of directing all conversation through you, giving you more opportunity to gently redirect or take back control instead of having an unruly popcorn whac-a-mole free-for-all.
  • Among all these rules, be flexible. Sometimes you need to let the discussion roll along unimpeded to see where it goes. Knowing when to do that comes with practice. Even then, you might get it wrong sometimes.
a bunch of cartoon businessmen looking angry and expressing opinions
It shouldn’t have to feel like this.
Image created by Adobe Express generative AI.

Even the very experienced need to maintain discipline

When you’re new to a thing, you tend to pay very close attention to all the necessary steps for success.

In rock climbing, you check and double-check all your knots. In driving, you come to a full stop, use your blinker, and regularly check your mirrors. When giving presentations, you rehearse out loud and time yourself. If you’re learning to cook, you stick closely to the recipe and measure all your ingredients.

But when you have some success at a thing, you may be tempted to relax on the basic disciplines you’ve already mastered. After all, you know how to do all this, so what could go wrong?

For a leader, that’s where danger lies.

Whether you end up with great snacks at your conference or not.

I can help.

I work with top executives and middle managers to improve their leadership skills, their workplace culture, and the effectiveness of their teams. Also, I help individuals identify and achieve their personal goals. Would you like to become more aware, be more effective, be more empowered, and feel fully prepared for your next steps?

Let’s talk.

You can help.

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Categories: Leadership


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