26 Oct 2022

Conformity and consensus

At a time when violent disagreements and unseemly spats are part of our daily news diet, when social media is awash with dissent and recriminations and pitched battles between so-called colleagues appear to have become the norm, we have been contemplating the elusive goals of conformity and consensus.

We have turned to ‘How to Behave’ (1856), a comprehensive guide to etiquette and manners by Samuel Roberts Wells, and note that it speaks, in its customary magisterial tones, on the subject as follows:

Conformity is an implied condition in the social compact. It is a practical recognition of the rights of others and shows merely a proper regard for their opinions and feelings. If you cannot sing in tune with the rest, or on the same key, remain silent. You may be right and the others wrong, but that does not alter the case. Convince them, if you can, and bring them to your pitch, but never mar even a low accord.”

Mr Wells rightly recognises that, even if agreement in a group or professional body is partial or not truly heartfelt, it behoves you – especially in a public position where your behaviour is open to scrutiny – to conform to the general view. Open dissent will detract from fragile consensus; discussion, disagreement and persuasion, which can be both challenging and constructive, should never be allowed to publicly undermine the appearance of accord.

You may choose your company, but having chosen it, you must conform to its rules till you can change them. You are not compelled to reside in Rome; but if you choose to live there, you must ‘do as the Romans do’.”

You are entitled to choose your own alliances and associations, both social and professional, but once you have done so you should adhere loyally to their prevailing beliefs.

We are sovereign individuals and are born with certain ‘inalienable rights’; but we are also members of that larger individual society, and our rights cannot conflict with the duties which grow out of that relation. If by means of our non-conformity we cause ourselves to be cut off, like an offending hand, or plucked out, like an offending eye, our usefulness is at once destroyed.”

Our individual goals, aspirations and ambitions may conflict with any group enterprise in which we have chosen to participate. We should be aware that asserting our refusal to conform with a consensus may well exclude us from a position where we have the power to influence it.

Seeking Consensus

These general principles should be borne in mind in any situation where you are seeking consensus or competent and harmonious decision-making. In the professional context, effective teams strive for consensus in the following ways:

• Open Exchange of Ideas

A forum is created in which each person in the team is given the opportunity to make suggestions or float ideas in a group discussion. It is essential at this point that everybody gets a fair hearing and that ideas are not shot down, dismissed or derided.

• Group Discussion

Once the ideas are all on the table, the group can jointly review them, ask for further explanation, maybe consider combining similar ideas, and work together to effectively prioritise them according to their effectiveness.

• Voting Rounds

The team is given the opportunity to cast their votes for the ideas that have been tabled. In successive rounds ideas that receive less than half the votes are eliminated, until a final vote can be held on three to five items.

• Final Resolution

If the team is divided down the middle and no clear option has emerged, this is the time for a further discussion, and at this point – if you are the stand-out who refuses to conform with the rest of the group, you will need to think about the wise words of Mr Wells and decide whether you are prepared, for the sake of resolution and harmony, to compromise.

Remember that, if you can make significant compromises to achieve consensus, there will be many benefits. The decisions that the team makes will have taken into account all the different perspectives of the team. By collaborating to reach a decision, the individual members of the team are more likely to feel well-disposed towards their colleagues, and less likely to experience feelings of rivalry or resentment, which often come from being overlooked or ignored. Eliminating disgruntled losers and ensuring that everyone is invested in the decisions made ensures that any agreed next steps are more likely to be implemented effectively.


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