CEOs should target alignment – not consensus – for their decision making

I recently worked with a CEO – new to the role – who saw reaching consensus amongst their leadership team as the most important factor when it came to decision making. There’s nothing wrong with wanting consensus, it’s a ‘nice to have’ but it can be a barrier to effective decision making; witness the herculean challenge of getting 200 countries to agree common carbon goals at the UN’s Climate Change Conference COP26. A more pragmatic and effective strategy is to target ‘alignment’ over consensus; getting to a place where decisions can be made and executed effectively, whilst ensuring people are engaged and involved.

So, how can a CEO achieve alignment in decision making? It requires four key principles:

  • Speak openly and honestly – it’s critical that an executive team can be open and honest with each other. GE’s Jack Welch was asked what is the biggest obstacle to a company’s success and he said candour: “In a bureaucracy, people are afraid to speak out. This type of environment slows you down, and it doesn’t improve the workplace.” Leadership teams need to speak with real openness and honesty if they are to align their decision making.
  • Quality of listening – of course, individuals can speak with candour, but it’s critical that everyone listens to understand what is being said, rather than listening to respond. The quality of the conversation is predicated on the quality of listening.
  • Manage conflict – high performing teams know how to manage conflict and don’t avoid it. Conflicts in a team are usually caused by people with strong, differing opinions. But it’s not the strong opinion that causes conflict; it’s someone’s attachment to being right. Leaders need to bring strong opinions to the table – that’s expected – but they need to be aware of having strong emotional attachment to being right. The key is having strong opinions that are lightly held.
  • Make a decision – if teams can have an open and honest conversation, know they’re being listened to, not avoiding conflict, then a decision can be reached which is usually the job of the leader to determine; someone needs to say we have had the conversation and this is what we will do.

Following this approach, individuals in the team can find themselves in one of three positions:

  1. It was my point of view; I agree with the decision and you can count on me 100% to execute.
  2. It was not my point of view; I disagree, but you can count on me to execute because I’m a committed member of the team.
  3. I disagree and I can’t execute. In that situation it’s the job of that person to move to position 2, and the team should help them move to 2. If a person finds they can’t get to 2, they shouldn’t be on the team.

No one has a divine right
If everyone was in position 1, that would be reaching consensus where everyone agrees with the decision. That’s not necessary and is often unachievable but everyone must have at least got to position 2, so the team can achieve alignment on a decision. No one team member has a divine right to be right; each only has a right to offer an opinion and an expectation that the opinion will be listened to.

Ultimately, it’s the CEO’s role to weigh things up and decide, but if they can do that based on alignment of their team – rather than consensus – the decision making process will prove easier and more effective for the organisation.