Lead by Consensus

Nleaders rule three ways: by command, by consultation, or by consensus.

The traditional way of leading was by command. A leader gave orders and everyone was supposed to follow them Today, leaders recognize that issuing orders without any consultation or without any explanation of why the orders are necessary is not a good way of getting people motivated to do their best. As Major General Gale Pollock (Ret.), the first woman surgeon general of the U.S. Army, explains: “If you order people to do something that they don't understand, they won't give it all they've got. The greatest performances and courage come when you show them why it matters.”

The second way to lead is by consultation. The consultation decision is where you ask people for their advice and input, and then you make the decision. This is a more motivating way of leading others than through simple commands. People will realize that the final decision is yours, but they will appreciate the fact that they were consulted in the decision-making process. And even if they don't agree with the final decision, they will be more likely to abide by it because of this consultation.

Consensus goes even further in involving others in the decision making. In this case, a leader does not make the final decision; that final decision belongs 100 percent to the group. The group must discuss the pros and cons of every action and then finally agree on the action to take.

Leaders will use all three methods, and they make it clear when discussing a critical decision what kind of a decision it is. Not every decision is appropriate for a consensus decision or for a command decision. Although a consensus decision has advantages, it is not an excuse for the leader to abdicate responsibility. What's important is that people understand when something requires a consultative or a consensus decision and when it is a command decision.

Leaders are paid to make the difficult decisions, and sometimes that means issuing a command. Yet the best leaders also recognize that there is a direct link between ownership of an idea and the degree to which people participate in discussing the idea. Leaders realize that the more people can engage in dialogue about an idea, the more likely it is that they will be committed to the implementation of the idea.

Leaders avoid giving orders whenever possible. Leaders always encourage people to think about and talk about and discuss ideas because they know that the more involved people are, the more likely they will be committed to supporting the final decision.

Create the Right Environment

Leading by consultation or consensus requires a high-trust environment in which people are empowered and unafraid to tell the truth or to take responsibility. Here is how to create the right environment for consultation or consensus leadership.


Nobody wants to do a bad job, but there will be problems. If any problem arises, deal with it quickly. Talk directly to the person involved and calmly seek out solutions to the problem Don't blame, accuse, or pass judgment. There is a good chance the problem didn't originate with the employee, but rather with the company itself or a supervisor. Whatever the cause of the problem, discover it and find a solution.


Employees want a chance to improve. Create an environment that not only allows mistakes, but actually encourages employees to raise their performance levels. You can help employees improve through the following steps:

Clarify expectations from the very beginning. Make sure that employees know exactly what results you expect from them Make those results as objective as possible.

Set measurable standards of performance. Remember that “what gets measured gets done.” Put financial measures on each output.

Never assume that the employee has completely understood your instructions. When you delegate an assignment or a project to your employees, make sure they are taking notes and then ask them to read back the assignment.

Give regular feedback. Tell people what they are doing well and what they can change and improve. Feedback is motivating because it sends the message that you are interested in their work Being in the dark about how well you might be doing is demotivating. Most of all, people love the feeling of a job well done. Let them know.


It is sometimes easy to become angry or impatient when a problem arises. Keep the attitude that despite the apparent problems, the employee had the best of intentions. Then deal with the problem calmly and in a way that does not humiliate the employee.

■ Don't criticize the employee or discuss the problem in a public place. Call the employee into your office to talk about the situation.

■ Be very specific about the problem or misunderstanding. Explain clearly why you are concerned.

■ Hear the employee out completely. Even if the employee becomes defensive, the employee's side of the situation might throw a completely different light on what happened.

If the employee is at fault, set clear expectations about how the employee's performance must improve and by how much. There is nothing more frustrating — and demotivating — than to be told to resolve a challenge or prevent a problem without being told how. People want to know exactly what they can do to fix the problem

Follow up. Has the employee made the adjustments that were agreed upon? Offer feedback and additional support when necessary.

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