Sunday, September 30, 2012

Consensus Challenges: Balancing Voices Part II

This is the continuation of a blog series started June 7 in which I'm addressing a number of issues in consensus. Today's topic is Balancing Voices.

I. When do you know enough to act? [posted June 7]
II. Closing the deal [posted June 10]
III. Wordsmithing in plenary [posted June 16]
IV. Redirecting competition [posted June 23]
V. Bridging disparate views [posted July 5]
VI. Harvesting partial product [posted July 20]
VII. When to be formal [posted July 29]
VIII. Harnessing brainstorms [posted Aug 10]
IX. Coping with blocking energy [posted Aug 19]
X. Defining respect [posted Sept 3]
XI. Balancing voices
XII. Knowing when to accelerate and when to brake
XIII. Knowing when to labor and when to let go
XIV. Accountability

• • •
While almost all cooperative groups intend to balance voices, actually doing so is trickier than it first appears. 

On the surface level, this may seem to be little more than making sure that in an open discussion everyone has a known chance to raise their hand (and an expectation that by doing so that they'll be called on). If that's not working, you can choose a more structured format, such as a Go Round, that will guarantee everyone air time. If people miss meetings, you probably need to provide a protected opportunity whereby people can offer input in absentia, or as a delayed reflection based on the minutes.

But let's suppose you do all that. On a deeper level, balancing voices is about trying to develop group decisions that constructively balance everyone's relevant input on a topic. Note that I didn't say: Weigh everyone's input equally. While some may believe in the principle that all voices should carry equal weight, they don't. It's more nuanced than that.

Factors that influence how much weight any given voice is given:Relevance of the input to the issue at hand 
Not all comments are germane to the topic, nor are all comments rooted in group values. If someone pleads for a personal preference that is not tied to a group, it won't carry as much weight (I'm not so saying it will be totally blown off—though it might be—I'm only saying to won't be weighted as heavily.)

Power of the speaker
If you're talking about fixing leaky pipes, a plumber's voice will carry more weight than a banker's. Someone with a reputation for being a good problem solver will be deferred to. Some are more comfortable and more persuasive speaking in groups. People with more social capital (by which I mean they're perceived to have given to the group more than they've taken) will have more sway. All of these things translate into the group assigning comments from these people more weight.

How many voices lean one way relative to how many lean another
In the simplified case where comments about how to handle a given situation boil down to two positions and 80% of the group favors Option A while 10% favors Option B (with the remaining 10% undecided), it is unlikely that balancing voices will result in a decision  exactly midway between A and B. I will probably be slanted much more toward A.

How compelling the minority viewpoints are, and the perceived cost of ignoring them 
This is more nuanced still. By combining the last two points, it's possible for a person who starts with an unpopular viewpoint to gain considerable support through strength of rhetoric. Or, alternatively, people may be persuaded to move toward a person's minority position by virtue of a strategic analysis that there will be an unacceptable social cost to not doing so—independent of the strength of the that person's opinion based on its merits. 

Regardless of how viewpoints are assessed, there remains the additional challenge of balancing them. This step will proceed much more smoothly if preliminary work has been done to establish that all viewpoints have been fully heard. It's hard for someone to be motivated to extend listening to others when they believe that the same courtesy has not been extended to them. In essence, the flow of creativity is accessed through the hose bib of validation, and it is feeling heard that opens the valve—helping people access flexibility about the final decision. 

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