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Building consensus

by Brought to you by the ACS Career Navigator
June 6, 2016 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 94, Issue 23

Credit: Shutterstock
Use sticky notes to help organize thoughts and suggestions.
A group of people writing on sticky notes.
Credit: Shutterstock
Use sticky notes to help organize thoughts and suggestions.

Imagine that you are in charge of a new project. You make preliminary plans, budgets, resource lists, and schedules. Then you gather the team to finalize everything and kick off the project. You share your assumptions and conclusions, budgets, and schedules. You ask for feedback, get a few questions, and see mostly nodding heads. Great! You start moving full speed ahead. But over the next few days, first one and then another team member ask to talk to you, and they have questions and concerns. Before long, you realize that the project is in trouble.

What happened, and how can you prevent this miscommunication from happening again?

Provide lead time.

Some people need to mull things over or talk them through before they reach a decision. Make sure to send materials far enough in advance so that everyone has time to read, consider, evaluate, and identify potential issues.

Silence means yes.

Make it clear at the start of the meeting that silence indicates wholehearted agreement. Anyone who remains quiet will be assumed to be in full support of the proposal. If this is a recurring problem in your organization, people may be surprised the first time you hold them to this. You will have to hold firm and remind them that it’s too late for this issue, but next time, they should make sure to share their concerns earlier. Over time, “silence means yes” will become the norm.

Allow anonymity.

Make sure to include ways for people to contribute without fear of what others will think of them. Let people write comments or questions on index cards, and you can read them aloud without names. Alternatively, encourage participants to text or use other back channels to communicate directly with the leader during the meeting.

Make it colorful.

Post major parts of the project on flip charts or whiteboards around the room. Give everyone several sticky notes in various colors and have them write down potential problems on red ones, benefits on green ones, and questions on yellow ones. Then have everyone put those sticky notes directly on the flip charts. This will quickly identify areas for further discussion.

Shrink it.

If you’re working with a large group, divide people into smaller groups for discussion. People will be more likely to speak up and voice their concerns in a smaller group. When everyone comes back together, have one representative from each group summarize their group’s thoughts, and allow the other groups to respond.

It’s not me, it’s them.

Instead of asking if they have any concerns, ask people what concerns or questions they think their direct reports, customers, or other stakeholders may have with this proposal. This allows the participants to speak up without fear of reprisal, because it’s not them criticizing the plan, it’s someone external to the group.

The next time you need to build consensus, use some (or all) of these techniques to make sure people speak up early and make their concerns known. That way you can address them at the beginning of the project, when things are usually easier to change.

Get involved in the discussion.

The ACS Career Tips column is published the first week of every month in C&EN. Post your comments, follow the discussion, and suggest topics for future columns in the Career Development section of the ACS Network (


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