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How to build consensus with Democratic Leadership

Updated January 18, 2023 by Carl Lindberg

Although democratic leadership strives for consensus, it should never be a requirement since a consensus culture can lead to some disadvantages of the democratic leadership style. This article outlines a few approaches to building consensus with democratic leadership, all tried and tested by me personally during my CEO career. Let me start with a short description of this leadership style pasted from our main democratic leadership article.

Democratic leadership is when an empowered team fully participates in the decision-making process. Ideas and suggestions can be brought forward by any team member, and there is a strive for consensus in decision-making. In the end, the democratic leader approves or makes the decision. Democratic leadership is an effective leadership style but can sometimes be too slow when fast decisions are needed.

Approaches to building consensus with democratic leadership

Although the thought of consensus might seem both daunting and ineffective sometimes, it can lead to very fast execution once established. The more diverse the team is when it comes to opinions, and the stronger they are in their conviction, the more difficult it will be to reach a consensus, of course. The road to consensus is also part of how to empower teams with democratic leadership. Here are a few of the techniques or guidelines that I use with management teams, as well as any other type of team arrangement, to make sure I capture as many of the advantages of the democratic leadership style as possible. These tips are not in any specific order but should rather be applied in parallel as required. Building consensus in a large team involving hundreds of people is a different animal, so my tips should be seen more in the context of teams of 4-12 members or similar.

Democratic Leadership requires everyone gets to voice their opinions and concerns

Give any relevant participant or stakeholder as many possibilities to voice their opinions, worries, and thoughts on a topic as possible without sacrificing productivity too much.

We all want to be heard, and we all strive to be understood. Try to ensure that everyone indeed gets heard and understood through discussions.

Discuss the different viewpoints and perspectives

While opinions are being heard, the democratic leader and the other team members should challenge them, ask for clarifications, and discuss the ups and down’s as much as time permits while remaining focused on the actual topic at hand.

If people disagree, they should say so and give others the respect of explaining why they disagree.

The Democratic leader must keep the team focused on the topic

As a team discusses a certain topic to reach a consensus, disagreements about other topics can arise as distractions, causing further disagreement. This can create a feeling of antagonism, resentment, defensive behaviors, etc., which can block your path toward consensus. If this happens, everyone should try to push the focus back to the real issue at hand. Let me use the example of a team that discusses the opening hours of their business, and as the discussion goes forward, someone brings up the topic of how the new opening hours should be presented on the storefront. Before you know it, people disagree on types of signs, colors, sizes, etc., and it is time to switch the focus back to the opening hours topic. Settle one topic at a time whenever possible. If you want inspiration, read about an example democratic leadership situation from my work where I capture the benefits of democratic leadership while remaining effective and productive in weekly team meetings.

Highlight areas where the team agrees to demonstrate consensus

If we continue with the opening hours example, let us say the team disagrees a lot on the closing time. If the leader underlines an agreement on the opening time earlier in the discussion, along with which days to be open, etc., people will feel closer to a decision. They are also reminded that they agree about almost everything and become more open to compromise since they see how much of their opinions have already won traction.

Furthermore, if some team members have a strong disagreement with high emotions, it is always good to circle back to what they already agree on and establish a common ground. As mentioned above, it will make the disagreement seem smaller than it did when voices were raised.

Summarize regularly

To keep the sense of common ground, it is good if someone, often the democratic leader, summarizes the conclusions so far in the meeting now and then. It shows traction, creates an opportunity for doubters to raise additional concerns, and underlines how many things the team is agreeing on and pinpoints the remaining aspects where agreements are needed.

Conclude, summarize and underline team accountability

At the end of the process, summarize what has been agreed upon and any remaining disagreements. Literally, say that this is the summary of the team’s opinion and ask whether anyone disagrees. This locks down common ground and conclusions and removes any future opportunities for “I could have told you this wouldn’t work” type behaviors. Additionally, the leader can underline that “We as a team concluded this, and we are now accountable for making it happen”, or similarly, to avoid risks of diluted responsibility where everyone leaves the room feeling that someone else is responsible.

Consensus should never be a requirement

Most importantly, remember that democratic leadership does not depend on constant consensus. This leadership style tries and pushes toward consensus, but in the end, the leader needs to make decisions where consensus cannot be reached or is unnecessary. Refer to How Democratic leadership can be effective for additional inspiration regarding this. No one should rely solely on a single leadership but rely on all the six leadership styles by Goleman, depending on the situation, the circumstances, and the people involved. If you keep chasing consensus where it cannot be found, and these situations are frequent, you will render yourself and the team ineffective.

When you make decisions on your own, especially if they go against the team, make sure you thank them for their input and explain your decision to them, thus being transparent and respectful at the same time.

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