Compromise is not an effective approach to building team consensus. It leaves stakeholders feeling that they’ve “compromised” their beliefs, and precludes the creation of innovative, higher value outcomes. It also creates resistance to overcoming problems that occur as a team moves forward to implement the compromise solution.
The problem with compromise
The problem with compromise as a consensus building approach is that it treats the symptoms of the situation rather than the underlying structural causes.
Compromise forces us to accept a certain degree of sub-optimization in the solution, based upon what we firmly believe to be the “facts” of the matter. Good compromise is not about good solutions, as much as it is about equitable sub-optimization.
Why compromise seems necessary
So why do smart, experienced professionals so frequently hold very different beliefs about the facts of any particular situation?
We believe that the structural causes for this phenomenon are the combination of the increasingly complex nature of the challenges we face today, compounded by the corresponding specialization and diversity each of us brings to our practice of work.
This is illustrated by the diagram below, where from each practitioner’s vantage point, there is a significant portion of the situation that simply is not visible.
As long as individual members of an organization subscribe to different meanings of shared information - which is what we mean when we say they have different perspectives - they will be unable to unite to take common action.
Why we choose compromise
The members will need to invest first in reaching a shared understanding and perspective, or else will wind up negotiating a compromise action that “compromises” their underlying knowledge and beliefs.
In this latter situation, it should be no surprise that our personal integrity puts us in constant conflict with the compromise agreement, regardless of our sincere wish to support it, under the guise of being a good team player.
This causes the further complication that as we move ahead to implement the solution or program reached through compromise, many of the team members will resist working through those problems. This is because they were never convinced that the compromised approach had integrity in the first place.
We assess that this situation exists in most corporations due to the lack of leadership skills to surface these differences of perspective as valid point sources of knowledge, and then to synthesize them into inventive solutions.
Instead, these differences, which frequently spotlight high leverage opportunities for innovation to occur, are diagnosed as interpersonal differences that are best addressed by compromise, or by using traditional “conflict resolution” techniques.
How to avoid compromise
As with solving any problem, the first step is to recognize that we have a problem, and to understand it as fully as possible.
“If I had one hour to save the world, I’d spend the first 55 minutes understanding the problem.” Albert Einstein
A first step for a leader whose team is struggling with building consensus, is to discuss this challenge as described above, and to check for shared understanding in order to move forward together.
This sets the stage for team members to reduce their attachments to their current positions, and to instead adopt an attitude and approach of wanting to learn and understand more about the situation from all perspectives.
The team leader can set an explicit expectation here, and request that discussion first focus on learning as much as possible about the situation, with each team member sharing their understanding about what the situation is, why it exists, and what it’s impact is. This is not yet the time to either present potential solutions, or to prove anyone right or wrong.
This IS the right time to have everyone be in an inquiry mode, and asking questions to understand each other as fully as possible. One effective technique here is to invite one member of the team to summarize the understanding of another member of the team after all have contributed their perspectives.
Leadership Tip: The savvy leader can be selective in asking for summaries from colleagues whom she knows see the situation very differently.
This process for establishing a shared understanding of the problem may take more time than expected. It may take an entire first meeting. That’s OK, per Einstein.
Once the team leader is confident that the team members have achieved a shared understanding, then and only then is the time right to start exploring solutions. That discussion should be much more productive after the team has established and demonstrated an expanded and shared understanding of the situation before them.
Kill compromise - not innovation
A similar approach can be taken to brainstorming potential paths forward. The key being not to jump to judgment too quickly, and to ensure that each team member fully understands the suggestions being offered by their colleagues.
Here too, asking people to summarize the suggestions of others can lead to a much higher level of mutual understanding.
Perhaps this final thought sums this up best:
“It’s not enough to be right. We also need to be helpful.” David Maister
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