Controlling the Mob (or Why Management by Consensus Does Not Work)

by Di Ellis

You only have to look at the recent Climate Summit in Copenhagen to realise that management by consensus is not the most efficient way of going about things. Nor is it likely to produce the desired results.

Many new Project Managers wonder what the best form of leadership style is – should they be autocratic (what I say goes!), should they be consensus building, or should they be somewhere along the continuum between these two extremes. Let's look at the options.

The Autocrat (or Dictator)

The autocrat (or as I prefer to call him, the Dictator) not only makes decisions on his own, but does not even seek input to those decisions. I actually heard a Manager say in a meeting once, in exasperation that his decision was being questioned, "I am the Manager here!", as if that would solve everything.

The major problem I have with this style, quite apart from the fact that to be an effective autocrat or dictator requires superior intelligence to get it right all the time, every time, is that these people rarely accept responsibility for their own mistakes.

They are happy to make all the decisions, but prefer to lay the blame off on someone else should anything go wrong.

And you may have noticed I am using the masculine form here (him, his). I am afraid to say that the majority of Project Managers (and other Managers) I have encountered who use this style have been men.

Not all though – I have come across women who use this style. They usually employ different techniques though. Usually they rely on their charm or good looks, however when that fails they can be as steely as their male counterparts!

The funny thing I have found with this style is that it is usually employed by people who lack self-confidence. It takes self-confidence to share your decision making process with others and open yourself up to questioning. So think about that next time you encounter an autocrat.

Are there times when this style might be appropriate? Certainly. Let's say your project is 1 month from delivery when your Project Owner tells you that your team has the opportunity to be relocated to a different floor with better facilities for staff.  Now whilst that might be tempting, with 1 month to go the correct response is a flat "no – talk to me about it later". And in this situation there is no need to hear out and discuss other's opinions – everyone needs to be focused on the task at hand.

However, having said that, be very judicious in your use of this style. Real situations which require an autocratic approach rarely come up on projects.

The Consensus Builder (or Cat Herder)

The consensus builder seeks harmony at all times, and will involve as many as people as possible in the decision making process to ensure everyone feels that they have had their chance to be heard. Nice idea – but it rarely works that way in practice!

These folk actually drive me to distraction. There are some types of decisions where it is desirable to seek others input and opinion, and even make them feel part of the decision making process, such as choosing the location and format for the staff Christmas party. However, there are also times when it is not only foolhardy, but can be downright disruptive.

Consider this scenario: you are managing a project with 5 streams, each with their own Project Manager. The project is to retrofit some new legislation to your IT systems. Then a change in legislation comes through – one that will affect all the work that you have done so far, and will require all of your teams to redo a lot of their work.

Now imagine that to decide how best to tackle this problem, you invite all of the project teams and their managers to a big discussion, and let everyone have their say. Bedlam!! And don't laugh – I have been involved in exactly this scenario – that's why I said it drives me to distraction.

Trying to get a room full of people, with different personal goals and objectives and worries, to all agree on a single course of action (not to mention the correct course of action) is as difficult as herding cats, especially cats you don't know all that well.

The consensus builder is usually someone who doesn't like to upset people – they want everyone to feel part of the team. They also don't like to take responsibility (they like to spread it around), so I am always flummoxed as to how they can become Project Managers in the first place – maybe in the right place at the right time!

Somewhere in Between (or the Benevolent Autocrat)

OK – so it's obvious our management style should be somewhere in between the dictator and the cat herder. But where exactly on this continuum? I employ the style I like to call the benevolent autocrat (I am sure I heard that somewhere else – I didn't make it up myself!).

The benevolent autocrat is someone who seeks relevant opinions, and considers these before making the decision themselves. Notice two words here – relevant and consider.

In the scenario above with the consensus builder, the relevant people to discuss this issue with was the Project Managers leading the streams, not the entire project team.

The second key word is consider – a competent Project Manager is always willing to listen to others opinions, especially subject matter experts. But the buck stops with you. You are going to be held accountable, so you have to make the decision. And you have to live by your decision.

That's why benevolent autocrat is such an appropriate term. Benevolent in that appropriate people's opinion is sought, their ideas and concerns listened to, and they feel part of the management team. Autocratic in that, ultimately, the decision is the Project Managers alone, right or wrong.


So, next time you need to make a decision on your project, stop for a moment and think about the most appropriate way to make this decision. Don't just do what you've always done. Consider whether getting other people's input is relevant, timely, and likely to have a significant outcome on the project. And don't be a cat herder!

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About the Author

Di Ellis is the owner of this site, and author of Manage That Project, a fantastically simple, easy to understand guide to project management.

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