By Susan Lesser

Question: We can't seem to agree on anything at my organization. Because we are at odds so often, or growth is slowing and, rumor has it, key people are considering leaving. How do I bring my family together? -T.B. from Thomaston

For many of us, consensus is often sought, but rarely achieved. However, the problem is probably not in our ideas nor does it rest with our stubborn, narrow-minded family members (only kidding). The flaw is in how we go about trying to reach the ever-elusive state of consensus.

What Is Consensus?

Frequently, articles such as this will start with Webster's definitive definition of consensus; however, I would argue that no definition matters other than the one that you have established for your group.

These days, common practice revolves around bringing everyone involved to 100% agreement. And yes, that is certainly consensus. But what else can be considered consensus? A simple 51-49 majority? A two-thirds majority? After consensus is reached, does veto-power come into play?

All are acceptable definitions, as long as these terms are clearly spelled out for all participants to understand. And each option has a set of pros and cons associated with it. For example:

Type of ConsensusProCon
100% ConsensusAll participants have bought in, and the direction is clear and can be considered a mandate.Groupthink may force a false agreement on the part of weaker or less vocal participants, and conflicting opinions may not be heard.
Simple Consensus
(e.g., two-thirds majority
or 51–59 vote)
Conflicting opinions have been aired, and individuals have not been bullied into changing their position.A win-lose situation has been created. People who were outvoted may not actively support the project during implementation.

The success of a consensus is not in what type of consensus you seek, but rather in how you obtain it.

Sometimes, an option is portrayed as either/or, or as black/white. This lack of wiggle room provides no opportunity for a middle ground (which is where many people are most comfortable). The next time you are faced with a consensus situation and are not getting the level of agreement you desire with your family members, stop the conversation. Ask those who are not yet behind the idea to fill in the blank (anonymously on paper or verbally): I could live with this idea if __________________________. I Could Live With It If ...

You might be surprised at how fast and how far you can move the process along. Not to mention the fact that the idea at hand might be strengthened and refined in the process.

Agree to Disagree

A person can support an idea even if s/he disagrees with it. If every family member truly has had an opportunity to speak up and genuinely express divergent points of view, and even one person remains unconvinced, it is wise to offer the s/he the agree to disagree option.

In this case, gaining consensus is about feelings not facts. Make certain that those who remain reticent feel heard and feel that their perspective was given due consideration. Confirm this publically. Acknowledge their contribution to the conversation. Then reiterate the idea as it will go forward and ask, for the sake of team, that the public face be one of support; that all differences remain between the four walls where the meeting is being held.

Consensus is an essential tool for every family business that is striving for consistent growth and sustained productivity. When properly put into use, consensus is the hallmark of effective communication and strong teamwork; however, consensus can create an environment of repression when executed incorrectly.

Always introduce a shared meaning of consensus. Be both creative and flexible in its implementation. You will find that you and your family have much more agreement than you thought.


Susan Lesser is co-founder of nPlusOne, an operational management company that focuses on the areas of recruitment, training, and consulting.