cartoon of a wolf in sheep's clothing

Do you and your partners pride yourselves on the fact that "as partners we never proceed unless we have consensus?"

Or that "we have voting rules but never need to use them, because we prefer to come to a consensus?"

So, what does this commitment to consensus actually say about your partners' decision making process, your professional and business culture, and the ability of your firm to adapt to, and respond rapidly and efficiently to, a changing business environment?

Surprisingly, very little and not what you might expect.

the costs of consensus

Insisting on consensus or harmony – at the expense of testing assumptions and getting partners to accept their responsibilities – is a false ideal. When consensus is achieved by avoiding issues, denying differences, repressing feelings, and labeling "combatants" as disloyal or "not team players," then it is not worth the paper the agreement is written on.

The cost of harmony is candid, respectful engagement with each other. That necessarily involves some constructive tension. It requires working together through difficult issues, not around or under them.

There is a risk, especially for law firm leaders, to confuse compliance with cooperation. They may pride themselves on their collegiality, ignoring underlying symptoms of indifference, lack of follow through, and ongoing resistance to the change. They may underestimate how their positions of respect and power affect others' willingness to confront or disagree with them. Senior partners who see the firm's past, present, and future through "rose colored glasses" may fail to observe feelings of robotic detachment, steaming frustration, and a sense of growing isolation that some of their partners and colleagues carry to work every day.

a solid foundation of leadership

Working in harmony calls for leadership behaviors that strengthen inclusive problem solving and planning. It also requires a balance of structure and support in the firm, which clarifies expectations while providing a means for achieving them.

At the same time, knowledgeable leaders understand that simply by "taking charge" some individuals and groups in the firm might react against their authority. How leaders react to projections from others is key eventually to working together in harmony and achieving successful results.

Making an honest appraisal of your own motivations, skills and habits is essential to understanding the impact of your behaviors on the viability and success of any change process. Ask yourself this question:

  • When leading, what do you really want and expect from your colleagues?
    • Do you prefer to be idealized, charmed, and deferred to by your partners?
    • How important is it to feel liked, keeping your partners as happy as possible at all times?
    • When attacked do you want to shut down, strike back harder, or justify yourself? 

Affirmative responses to these questions may set you up for unintended consequences.

Emphasizing collaboration and teamwork does not mean that authority behaviors are inappropriate or that agreed voting rights should not be exercised. Effective leaders know how to handle the authority dynamics in their partnership. Pushing for an artificial consensus too early can damage relationships and results. On the other hand, most partners understand that it's not very efficient cooperation if everybody has to agree on everything all of the time. There needs to be an agreed method for bringing certain issues to conclusion that results in acceptance of the next steps.

Partners as advocates and deal-makers are not traditionally schooled in skills of conflict resolution, consultative dialogue and change management practices. Just like any business leader, they may fear getting it wrong. Professional relationships drive the reputation and financial viability of the firm, so tension and disagreements can pose actual business risks. The law firm structure itself is a fragile business entity, with partners shouldering multiple responsibilities for earning revenue, managing client relationships, and managing their ownership interests simultaneously.

It may seem easier, quicker, and less complicated to appeal to your partners for consensus through traditional methods of influence and, at times, gentle or not-so-gentle coercion.

Just remember that consensus, by itself, guarantees nothing.

Lisa M. Walker Johnson


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