Sunday, January 24, 2010

Jeremy Bentham and Consensus

Today was the final day of a facilitation training weekend in Atlanta, and during a prep session I got into an interesting discussion with an experienced student about consensus that revolved around how much effort to put into working with outliers—the folks in a group whose orbit is furthest from the core. Where I feel that consensus groups are obliged to try everything they can think of to work constructively with the input of all members, my student demurred. She preferred a philosophy that evoked the spirit of Jeremy Bentham, the 19th Century British philosopher who advocated Utilitarianism: the notion that society would be best off if it consistently made choices that would produce the greatest good for the greatest number.

As far as I'm concerned this is essentially the same theory behind democratic voting—that if we support what the majority wants then more people will be happy than not. Even leaving aside such abuses as disinformation, ballot-box fraud, and what Noam Chomsky styles "manufacturing consent," completely fair and open elections (assuming there are such animals) can lead to tyranny of the majority. In fact, widespread dissatisfaction with voting processes is no small part of the impetus for cooperative groups to try consensus—where no relevant thought (however childish) is left behind.

While I'm a strong proponent of consensus, I freely admit it's not an easy process to master. It calls for a completely different mind set than the adversarial and competitive one that we've been deeply conditioned to accept as the water we swim in, and unless the group succeeds in creating and maintaining a culture of curiosity and collaboration in which to conduct its business, consensus is not much more than unanimous voting, which tends to be exhausting.

Knowing of this frustration (there are untold numbers of cooperative groups who blithely adopt consensus as their decision-making process with no commitment to training in it and with little idea about what it takes to get good results), the advocate for Utilitarian Consensus was trying to make the case for a middle ground approach where a group would first make a good faith effort to achieve consensus, but if it didn't succeed (after x number of meetings), then it would proceed to voting, with some kind of super majority (80%?) needed for a proposal to be adopted. That way, stubborn holdouts would not be able to stop the group from moving in a direction that was overwhelmingly popular. It was a way to cope with tyranny of the minority.

While I can follow why there are supporters of this approach (frustration with outliers is a relatively common phenomenon in consensus groups), I don't support it and resist labeling it consensus.

One premise that undergirds the position favoring Utilitarian Consensus is that many outliers don't seem to act in the best interests of the group. Another is that some portion of outliers don't belong in the group (either because there isn't an appropriate values match, or they're consistently violating agreements about acceptable behavior). While I acknowledge that these things occur, and there are times when separation is the right conclusion, I think it should only be considered when all other attempts at constructive resolution have failed.

I worry that if a group uses consensus with a voting back-up, then the majority will not work diligently enough to find a way to include the outliers. The pressure will all be on the holdouts to persuade more people to their view, because if the stalemate persists the minority will simply be outvoted. Worse, if the group votes with any regularity, it may never successfully make the transition from a voting culture to a collaborative culture.

Culture, Not Cloture
While it's not hard to understand the impetus for a voting back-up as a response to endless meetings (trial by exhaustion), I have a different idea. Instead of focusing on how to limit air time for the disaffected (cloture), look at how to create the right atmosphere for group deliberations, well-oxygenated by the warm breezes of bridging energy (rather than enervated by the chill winds of advocacy). In order to access the true power of consensus—both to solve problems and enhance the connections & energy in the group—it's important to step off the merry-go-round of battling for individual favorites in the interest of finding the solutions that best balance all the factors in play. It means learning how to step outside your own analysis to see what's best for the whole. There's magic in that and super-majority voting does not promote it.

Having said all that, there is yet another level to this examination: at what point is it reasonable to conclude that everyone doesn't belong in the same group and it's OK to let go of the hope that you can find a way to include everyone? At what point is it appropriate to start encouraging the disaffected to leave the group?

This is a delicate matter, yet important to start defining before you're there (as it's nearly impossible to be seen as handle this even-handedly if the viability of a specific membership is at risk). When has the group tried enough and it's time to pull the plug?

Fortunately, if you have decently articulated standards about the qualities you're looking for in members and are reasonably diligent about screening for a good fit, then this will be a rare occurrence. Nonetheless, most groups that last for any length of time face some version of this at least once in their existence. Thus—whether you cleave to the version of consensus that I espouse or are inclined toward the Utilitarian model—you're still well advised to prepare to have to face this unpleasant moment.

Guideposts on What Will Help You Sleep at Night (If You're Thinking of Asking Someone to Leave the Group)
While there's no hard and fast rule that will guide you unerringly to know when the moment to let go has arrived, I can give you some useful hints. In no particular order:

Hint #1: If in connection with the outlier's latest challenge you haven't at least once been with them in a meeting where you were not triggered by their behavior and can honestly say that you were there for them, then you probably haven't tried everything.

Hint #2: If you haven't been able to demonstrate to the outlier's satisfaction that you've understood their point of view, then you haven't tried hard enough.

Hint #3: If you're thinking of leaving the group rather than asking someone else to, you're probably at the end of the line.

Hint #4: If you've asked in outside help in an attempt to resolve the impasse and there's been no movement, you may be done.

Hint #5: If you can't see any way to interpret the outlier's behavior was well-intentioned, try harder (you can be sure the outlier's story will not be that they've been placed on Earth simply to torment you and the rest of the group—find out what their story is and try it on before giving up).

Hint #6: You can object to someone's behavior and still respect their feelings and ideas. If you think that objectionable behavior means that someone's contributions to a discussion are disqualified, think again—they may be doing the best they can. Don't conflate the way people express themselves with what they are saying.

Hint #7: If you're having trouble articulating what the outlier has done that violates an explicit group agreement, then think twice before asking them to leave—the tension may simply be illuminating ambiguity in what the groups stands for or how it operates.

Hint #8: If you haven't given the outlier a clear opportunity to hear concerns about what places their membership in jeopardy and given that person a reasonable chance to correct the problem, then it's questionable that you've followed due process or acted with compassion.

Hint #9: Finally, if you find yourself telling the story over and over about how you had to do it, it probably means you're uneasy about the possibility of having acted precipitously (methinks the lady doth protest too much.)

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