Robert Whiting In search of awesome

Command and Consensus


Communicating expectations and work completed in a shared employee log is a phenomenal example of grass roots management (bottom up). Your team identified a problem with a communication root cause and acted on it by coming up with a shared communication system to reduce misunderstandings. Your team got buy in. No one said, “Here’s a new system you must do because I said so.”

I would even go so far as to say that your types of management can be simplified further. Instead of top-down, lateral, and bottom up, I would argue that there are only two kinds: command or consensus.

Traditional management is done in a command form known as top down, where titles or authority allow someone to command direction, action, or attidudes (perceived or otherwise). Command is needed in some situations. It allows for uniformity and speed if executed well. The military uses this very well to accomplish very large complex tasks with minimal loss.

Consensus is where individuals discuss and get buy-in. Whatever the task, if consensus is at work, it becomes the individual’s mission instead of merely obediance to an authority’s mission. Your team did this very well. Someone suggested an idea to solve a problem that the whole team recognized, and there was likely some discussion about how to implement it–maybe concessions were made, maybe ideas solidified as a group. But in the end everyone agreed on a solution that they were personally motivated to accomplish. Together. And that’s a powerful motivation that builds teams.

Why don’t we do all decisions like that? Collaborative decisions take the whole group discussing, agreeing, disagreeing, finding compromise, sharing vision, and building consensus. That takes a long time and the decisions may not be in line with the vision of the owner or the direction of the market.

Consensus and command are not mutually exclusive. There are two ways they can be combined: order and magnitude. Or order and emphasis, same thing.

Command first with command emphasis looks like a strong leader who decides the direction, announces it to the group, then spends some time convincing the group that it is the right direction to go.

Command first with consensus emphasis begins with a direction, but allows for more consessions on details as the leader spends more time working with the group to gain full consensus. The initial direction may even change as a result of the discussions.

Consensus first with a command emphasis sounds like a contradiction, but I’ve seen it work. It often takes the form of a committee decision (the consensus) that becomes policy (the command structure). Our government is setup like this: a group decides on a law, compromises, changes, and agrees that it should be passed–then it is enforced.

Consensus first with a consensus emphasis sounds like a pipe dream, but it’s actually quite possible. It’s can be very slow, but if the whole group discusses and has equal buy in and retains the right to change decisions in the future as a group, then the group feels an immense sense of ownership and responsibility for the outcomes. With perfect consensus, no external enforcement is needed because everyone agrees on the right course of action.

These two elements take on many forms, and the discussion on their interactions could probably be its own book–which doesn’t sound like a bad idea.

Your question also touched on how to define and communicate expectations. However, you answered it yourself: over-communicate. Understand your highest level expectations and tell your manager. The hierarchy of priorities should dictate what rules get “bent”. If serving your customer is higher in priority than a minor protocol in the handbook, that should be clear in your expectations. If they’re not, make it so, write it down and explain to your manager that if two competing priorities come up, this is the criteria you’ll use.

Good managers should be communicating priorities and expectations to you, but in the mean time, communicate it back up. If their command doesn’t end with consensus, help them build consensus with you, find out why certain priorities are important. Get your own buy in.

Internal motivation is always better.