Cooperation vs Cooperaction

It's a slippery slope between consensus and paralysis

As a kid, did you ever see the “Goofy Gophers” cartoon, in which the two characters Mac and Tosh were so incredibly considerate that it seemed they would never accomplish anything, always saying things like “You first, my dear,” and “But, no, no, no. It must be you who goes first!”, or agreeing with each others’ unnecessarily complex phrases with a hearty “Indubitably”? I was recently reminded of these two rascally but respectful rodents as I sat in on a meeting of a group of political activists. I use the term “activist” loosely; in spite of the fact that I vigorously support the aims of this particular group, I doubt they’ll ever accomplish anything, and I find sitting in on meetings with them almost excruciating. Why? Because of a phenomena we’re all at least a little familiar with, i.e., the dreaded groupthink.

Collectivity & Cooperation vs Procedural Paralysis

I’ve always been a team player myself. In fact, one of the cornerstones of the method I bring to any work I do is the demand that all involved parties are committed to the good of the task at hand, and not bound by their ego-driven attachment to the ideas they have about it. I believe in that mysterious “It Factor”, the idea that for virtually everything around us, there’s a best natural manifestation of the “soul” of the thing, whether it’s the sculpture that a certain piece of marble should be, or the way a song should be played by a particular group at a certain moment, or the way a room should be arranged. Or the results of a group of people’s collective action. But this is a fine balance. Being respectful of everyone involved in something does not, in my opinion, mean that everyone deserves a 100% equal voice. I’ve always known this theoretically, but had never seen it in action until recently. The main problem with attempting absolute consensus is two-fold, and will manifest in the worst way when 1.) A really bad idea is the first one agreed upon for consideration, and 2.) the group maintains 100% commitment to respecting the possible validity of the idea and the input of everyone involved, no matter how inane their perspective is. In the case of the group I was working with recently, matters were made worse by the fact that even the basic procedures of the meeting were open to discussion, so before even discussing any action, literally an hour was spent on discussing discussion procedure.

Benevolent Dictators & Ego Collisions

Although I’m a big fan of the “benevolent dictator” in many situations – a great film director or stage manager are great examples – if a group is committed to 100% consensual processes, there are probably only two solutions – which I’ll get to in a moment – and which won’t allow for well-intentioned assertiveness. The common response of someone who sees this paralysis occurring and actively tries to fix it is usually implosively catastrophic. The person will usually preface what they say with “I have over X number of years experience with” and then explain why the thing they’re saying is so valuable to the group. Even if it IS valuable to the group, the only word the group hears is the “I”, and even if the person only uses the word twice at the beginning to say “when I did this I”, the group only hears the word echoing cavernously throughout the room as they imagine the person’s head swelling like a cartoon as they self-aggrandize, wondering when they’ll ever shut up so the group can get back to groupthinking.

Assertions As Questions

This is the oldest managerial trick in the book; everyone knows that the best way to get someone to do something is to ask them, and that people will be most on board with something when they feel like it was their idea. If a group has actually CHOSEN groupthink as their preferred method though, the only hope of re-directing the train of thought is to find some incredibly passive way of injecting a new idea. And this is dangerous ground. The problem is that the flawed thinking of the group is usually so painfully obvious that it almost enrages the parties who see the problem, so it’s almost impossible to actually assert an idea, even if it is completely based on verifiable facts. The idea has to be posed as a question about a possibility, and one has to tread lightly to avoid being bluntly critical of the existing trainwreck that is already in motion, or risk being permanently and subtly ostracized or marginalized by the group.

Or You Can Take Your Marbles And Go Home

Depending on what’s at stake, and how bad the groupthink is, it may be worth sticking around and being patient. And patient you will have to be, because the kind of material that’s often referenced for consensus decision making is material like this Seeds for Change Guide for Consensus Decision Making. The methods themselves will be alien to many, and the procedures are elaborate, so you can easily spend hours just outlining procedures and training the facilitators to implement them. And who will still be around at that point to listen? Well, probably not me. As a person with a strong team spirit, I like actually playing the game, and maybe WINNING, and have no desire to disrupt the fun of others. I’m probably more apt to take my marbles and go play elsewhere. And I think it’s important to realize that this can be as productive and cooperative as staying and acquiescing to the group. Chances are that unless you’re literally maladjusted in some way, there are probably other people in the group who feel the same way, and you can start a new game with them!

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