Management Matters: The destructive nature of fake consensus

In this month’s column, I am turning to the issue of fake or overused consensus in decision making. Leaders, in the United States, often default to seeking consensus, seeing it as the holy grail of group decision making, believing that this is the only or a good way to ensure buy-in to the decision. There are several problems with this choice of decision-making style, including but not limited to the following:

  • First and foremost, most decisions should not be made by consensus. Victor Vroom’s research shows that 60-80% of situationally appropriate decision-making styles ultimately rely on the leader having the final say. More on this later in this column.
  • Fake consensus — when the leader pretends the decision is being made by consensus, but it isn’t — creates significant skepticism, distrust, and disengagement.
  • Consensus can result in poor decisions with bad outcomes if individual experts’ input is not honored; this is sometimes known as “group think.”

Let’s look at why consensus should not be the default for group decision making. I’ll review two models: (1) the spectrum of group engagement and (2) Victor Vroom’s Situational Leadership model.

Spectrum of Group Engagement

There are many ways that groups make decisions, with consensus being only one of them. The styles on the spectrum, moving left to right, increase the number of people included in the process.

Each of these methods has pros and cons. A sample of each is provided below. More could be added.


authoritarian minority majority consensus unanimity
Description One person makes the decision A small, sometimes representative, group makes the decision There is a vote and a majority prevails All affected parties,  or representatives of affected parties, engage in the decision-making process and can live with the decision Everyone weighs in and is thrilled with the decision
Pros ·   Fast ·   Fast ·   Speed depends on timeline for the vote ·   Slower ·   Slowest
·   Honors expertise ·   Brings in more expertise ·   Depending on voting structure, can give a better sense of fairness ·   Can increase buy-in
·   Brings in more representation
Cons ·   Dangerous if the decision-maker is not knowledgeable ·   Greater community can feel misrepresented by the ‘minority’ (small) group ·   Easy to have a disenfranchised large minority (think of 49/51 vote results) ·   Over-used


·   Unattainable
·   Hard to determine if consensus has been reached

A few notes about the different decision making or inclusion methods mentioned above:

  • People confuse unanimity and consensus.
  • Unanimity exists when everyone loves the decision; try this with seemingly simple decisions like going on vacation in Hawaii or eating vanilla ice cream; you can’t get unanimity with even these seemingly universally appealing choices.
  • Consensus is reached when everyone feels heard, can live with the decision, and will support it outside the room. Note this last phrase. Will people support it in the hallways and kitchen?
  • Avoiding voting as much as possible in organizational life; it’s divisive; there are ways to get a sense of direction that don’t involve voting, e.g. dot voting with multiple dots per person.

Victor Vroom’s Situational Leadership model

The second model I want to introduce to you is the work of Victor Vroom, professor emeritus at the Yale School of Management. Vroom’s decades of research, based on true cases and used with over 200,000 managers worldwide, produced a taxonomy of ways leaders make decisions with their core team. Leaders who adjust the decision-making process to the situation are referred to as situational leaders. These leaders adjust their decision-making process to increase the development level of their staff, “as defined by competence, commitment, confidence, and motivation to perform a particular task without supervision.”

A situational leader is one who can adopt different leadership styles depending on the situation. The following section is adapted from Victor Vroom’s work, particularly the trainer’s manual for the leadership. Vroom’s research shows that there are four concepts that powerful situational leaders understand and utilize:

  • Taxonomy of Leadership Styles.
  • Effectiveness Criteria.
  • Situational Factors,
  • Time- and Development-Driven Models.
  1. The Taxonomy of Leadership Styles

Vroom distinguishes five degrees of involvement of your group and team members in the decision: Decide, Consult Individually, Consult Group, Facilitate, and Delegate.



  1. Effectiveness Criteria

One’s leadership style makes a difference. The five choices are not equally likely to prove effective. The choice of decision-making method is assessed against four criteria: 1. the quality of the decision made; 2. the effectiveness with which the decision is implemented; 3. the amount of time consumed in making the decision; and 4. the extent to which the decision process contributes to the development of team members. A leadership style which is best for one of these criteria is not necessarily best for another. For example, a problem which is time-efficient may not be best for developing talents within the team.

  1. Situational Factors

In some situations, a more “autocratic” or decisive approach is likely to be most effective. In others, various degrees of involvement on the part of your group or team are likely to produce better results. Being an effective leader requires recognizing when to use each of these ways of making decisions. The normative model utilizes 11 factors described later in this column.

  1. Time- and Development-Driven Models

The optimum style on a given decision will be affected by the priorities that one places on short-term considerations (e.g., minimizing time) or on those which are longer term (developing your team).

11 Factors to Consider

Vroom’s model suggests 11 factors that a leader should consider when choosing which decision-making method to use. These are:

  1. DECISION SIGNIFICANCE: The significance of the decision to the success of the project or organization.
  2. IMPORTANCE OF COMMITMENT: The importance of team members’ commitment to the decision.
  3. LEADER’S EXPERTISE: Your knowledge or expertise in relation to this problem.
  4. LIKELIHOOD OF COMMITMENT: The likelihood that the team would commit itself to a decision that you might make on your own.
  5. GOAL ALIGNMENT: The degree to which the team supports the organization’s objectives at stake in this problem.
  6. LIKELIHOOD OF DISAGREEMENT: The likelihood that the team will be in conflict or disagreement about preferred solutions to the problem.
  7. GROUP EXPERTISE: Team members’ knowledge or expertise in relation to this problem.
  8. TEAM COMPETENCE: The ability of team members to work together in solving problems.
  9. INTERACTION CONSTRAINT: The difficulty and/or cost in convening a meeting of group members due to their geographical dispersion or the immediacy within which action is needed.
  10. IMPORTANCE OF TIME: The “opportunity costs” of involving group members stemming from the amount of their time and your time which would be necessary.
  11. IMPORTANCE OF DEVELOPMENT: The value of further developing the capabilities of group members, their ability to work together as a team, and their identification with organization goals.

Tips and questions for moving forward

  • Observe yourself and notice how you to tend to make decisions; try to use different decision-making methods suited to the situation.
  • What stops you from using a wider range of styles?
  • Take a Vroom course (my firm offers these, of course) which involves a detailed assessment of your decision-making style.
  • Ask others in your leadership team to do more leading and facilitating of meetings, decisions, and more.

If you have a specific management or leadership dilemma or question that you’d like addressed in this column, please feel free to email me at lfreebairnsmith@orgpg.com.

About the Author: 

Laura Freebairn-Smith  is a Partner and Co-founder of Organizational Performance Group (OPG), a management consulting firm that believes people and their ability to work together are critical to the success of your organization. She holds an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Systems. She has taught as faculty and guest lecturer at Yale, Georgetown, Central CT State University, and the University of New Haven. She was formerly the creator and Director of the Organizational Development & Learning Center at Yale.