Overcome the Seduction of Consensus
Conventional wisdom gives high marks to consensus and failing grades to dissension. After all, the prevailing theory goes, those who don’t give unqualified support to the boss, but question his or her plans, undermine the supportive climate that’s needed for business success.
But that bit of “wisdom” contains a flaw so serious it can destroy a business. As we’ve seen lately, passive directors who fail to provide proper oversight can let a company commit criminal, or at least unethical, acts.
Consensus, in and of itself, is not bad. It becomes bad only when agreement is reached by people who think support is “going with the flow” or teamwork means never challenging the judgment of the majority or the boss. Questioning the majority or, even worse, an authority, is difficult and can be dangerous to one’s career. Those who buck conventional wisdom often are labeled skeptics or, worse yet, troublemakers.
We’ve all heard this corporate slogan: We must pull together to achieve our common goal. The message that’s implied is: Since dissent is negative thinking, it’s discouraged. So stay positive. If your peers accept it, go with the majority. After all, collective judgment is infallible.
That’s called groupthink.
Alfred Sloan, who ran General Motors Corp. from 1923 to 1956, once said at a directors’ meeting: “Gentlemen, I take it that we are all in complete agreement on the decision here. Then, I propose that we postpone further discussion…to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about.”
So what’s an independent-minded person to do when faced with colleagues who are living in an echo chamber of their opinions? Remaining silent or even resigning is an option, but then the lone skeptical voice is lost. Debating the majority point by point and countering their premises in a matching sales-pitch voice are judged to be argumentative and unsupportive—and thus get discounted as background noise.
Yet have you ever noticed how the distinctive occasional chirp of a single bird stands out and commands your attention? Can that image be extended to a business meeting experiencing groupthink over a hare-brained proposal supported by the boss or a majority of the group? Instead of mounting a full-scale counterattack, ask one or two penetrating questions or show skepticism in a voice that does not sound like a sales pitch. Then disengage. The result may surprise you.
It won’t happen all the time, but on occasion the tone of the discussion will shift. A participant who has been relatively quiet up until now will restate one of the penetrating questions or rephrase an earlier skeptical comment. While there is no guarantee that the idea will be rejected, at least the discussion will rise to a more exploratory level.
Look Into LLC Status
Ask your lawyer why an increasing number of professional firms are organized as limited liability companies (LLC) instead of S corporations or partnerships. You’ll find that LLCs offer more protection against personal liability in the event of bankruptcy. Also, they are not subject to the restrictions on numbers and kinds of shareholders that apply to S corporations.
STANLEY ZAROWIN, a former JofA senior editor, is now a contributing editor to the magazine. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .
|An Invitation |
The JofA publishes a monthly collection of Golden Business Ideas and invites readers to contribute their favorites (for attribution, if you like).
Send your ideas to contributing editor Stanley Zarowin via e-mail at email@example.com or regular mail at the Journal of Accountancy , Harborside Financial Center, 201 Plaza Three, Jersey City, NJ 07311-3881.