Building Consensus for Change

December 30, 2018

I was talking to a CMO of a very large corporation the other day who was working through simplifying her company’s branding. It’s the kind of company that has acquired a bunch of other businesses and has several distinct but related lines of business. The conversation started out with her asking for feedback and ideas on her proposal which had apparently received significant pushback from some of the members of the power-holding, decision-making group. Her ideas were actually very viable, but admittedly not yet ideal. Instead of getting suggestions on how to bring her work from viable to ideal, she found herself defending the idea of doing anything at all. This was creating enormous frustration for her.


What she was dealing with is super common in any group of people and especially in a long established large company. It is fear of change. We see it everywhere. There are some people who are wired to resist change of any kind. Especially in a large group where there is likely to be more than one fear source. Fear is very dependent on company. If one person is anxious, they are more likely to question their anxiety’s validity. But, get just one other source of anxiety and it grows exponentially. Two anxious people don’t create twice the amount of fear, they create four times the amount of fear. Three people create nine times the amount of fear. It takes only a very small group to create the amount of fear that can tank even the best plans. So if we want change, or if it’s clear that change is needed to accomplish our goals, the first thing we always need to do is deal with the fear that will surround the entire process. If we don’t, the fear will take over and sabotage any attempt we make to create room to grow.


You’re probably saying “Yea, but how? You can’t convince someone that their fear is irrational.” 


You’re right. So don’t try to do that.


Instead here is a process that works to build consensus in any group of people.


  1. Your best tool for slaying the fear dragon is listening to it. Most people are used to being told that there anxiety is not valid because most people who are not anxious dismiss fear as being “ridiculous”. The most common response to the expression of a fear is “but there’s nothing to be afraid of.” This does not provide comfort for the person feeling the fear, but instead deepens the fear. The fearful person is not reassured by it but thinks that non-fearful person simply doesn’t see the danger they do see. This gets the fearful person even more dug in, protecting their  point of view and their reputation as a source of valid information. 


Invite each fearful person to a private one-on-one meeting. Tell them you want to know what they see that nobody else appears to see so that you can make sure to avoid those pitfalls. Then listen. Really listen. Don’t roll your eyes. Don’t try to change their minds. Don’t invalidate their argument or observations. Don’t try to sell them. Just listen. Do take notes. Do ask follow up questions to gain more details and insight. Do make it clear that they are being genuinely heard. Then thank them for their time and walk away from the meeting.


  1. Take a day away from your notes to get some distance from the situation. Then look at them. Highlight anything in there that is a valid concern. There is almost always at least something that truly deserves to be looked at and avoided. Some of it will be stuff that can’t be predicted. Some will be conjecture or based on false assumptions. Break it down in those categories: “Concern”, “False Assumption”, “Out of our Control”. This makes them feel heard.


  1. Find a solution for addressing the valid concerns. Find sources that address the underlying false assumptions. Occasionally, in doing so you will discover that what you thought was a false assumption actually does have some teeth to it. Don’t be afraid to move items from Assumption to Concern.


  1. Go back to the person after at least a few days. Thank them for taking the time to elaborate on their point of view. Reflect the real concerns you took away from the meeting. Give them some solutions to the problem and ask them what they think about them. This builds trust. 


  1. If, and only if, they bring up some of the conjecture based on false assumptions, tell them that you took their concern seriously and looked into it to find a solution. Then present them with the sources of information that dispute the vulnerability. This deepens the feeling of being heard and deepens their trust.


  1. If, and only if, they bring up the things that are beyond anyone’s control, such as market fluctuations, let them know that your heard their concerns and considered them deeply. Express that to you it does not appear to be a risk that can be hedged. Ask them if they have any suggestions for how to move forward and minimize the risk by hedging it. Ask them what they think might happen if their concern did come to pass. Ask them how often that has happened. If they have a suggestion, genuinely consider it. If not, you will have opened the door for another person in the group to express that every endeavor holds some amount of risk and to add support for the idea of taking on some measured risk in order to grow.


Building consensus is a tough job in any group of people. The best way to gain consensus and thereby support is through bringing “naysayers” into the circle.


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