consensus as control?
April 17, 2006
We’ve spent about 4 hours talking about chairs. Moving them, not moving them, what they “symbolise”, who’s not sitting in one, who is sitting in the middle of the group, who’s sitting on the outside of the group. Were anyone to walk into the middle of these conversations I’m convinced they’d think we’ve all lost the plot. In the absence of an agenda and something “to talk about” a group starts looking for things to talk about to replace the anxiety of the silence. Think of how difficult it is to sit on a three hour train journey with no newspaper, iPod, coffee, book and you get some idea of what I’m talking about . Paranoia about senior management and their intention towards the group starts to rear its ugly head. It didn’t take long for people to feel like we were like lab rats in a cage, being manipulated for some other external reason. The “management” deliberately arranged the chairs to “make” us react in this way is a popular fantasy.
A group relations conference is a laboratory environment. One which people willingly enter into in order to get a real, lived and heightened sense of the dynamics of groups, organisations and systems at first hand. Normally we’re so busy focussing on the external task or mission of the organisation that we aren’t aware of the unconscious processes like fear, paranoia, seduction, etc that are informing how we go about our business.
One of the manifestations of this is the attempt to reach “consensus”. Power plays are being worked out all over the place. There is a desire for consensus on who sits where, how the room is organised etc because there is a fantasy that consensus avoids chaos. The groups are grappling with difference – is it possible to be in a system with someone and tolerate their difference? We spoke about this in a group yesterday and there was a “consensus” that “difference” was acceptable. Until, someone expressed a view that was contrary to the consensus and the group wasn’t one bit happy at all. The paradox was not lost and after a robust discussion there was a genuine and felt sense that difference did exist and when we let go of consensus as a control mechanism it really is possible to handle the anxiety of it all.
I realise as I’m writing this that it gives no flavour whatsoever of the experience of being in the middle of the robust discussion. But each day organisations and leaders are faced with how to manage with diversity and difference. Policies are drafted, statements are made and the spoken story can sometimes be very different from the lived.
It’s extraordinarily hard work to accept and tolerate difference in a lived way. It’s neurotic work to avoid it. When I’m working with groups I try to help them live with the difference and avoid the compromise of consensus. My question always is – “what is being avoided by the group’s need to be in agreement?” If groups are brave enough to attempt an answer then there is rich learning and authentic connection.