Leadership and Staffing

Managing Conflict through Effective Consensus Building

Managing Conflict through Effective Consensus Building

Taking a consensus-building approach to make important decisions mitigates potential conflict and enables everyone’s voice to be heard

Lab management is a complex and challenging role. Every lab is different, and every lab presents new and different challenges. One of the most difficult aspects for any lab manager is addressing conflict effectively. Most lab managers are scientists by training (and nature), and have significant technical knowledge and experience. While that technical training provides a solid basis for technical debate around the merits of an experiment or the details of the interpretation of results, it is often insufficient to address the people or organizational conflicts that inevitably arise around the lab.

There are many different approaches to managing conflict. One of the most important aspects of conflict management was developed by Thomas and Kilmann. This approach developed a set of conflict management styles based on the relative assertiveness and cooperativeness of the participants in the conflict. Assertiveness in the conflict is related to the stakes involved for the participants. Cooperativeness in the conflict is related to the degree of common interest among the participants.


Figure 1 shows a representation of the Thomas and Kilmann model.
Kenneth W. Thomas and Ralph H. Kilmann

Consensus is an agreement that the various participants can support, even if they don’t fully agree with it. Consensus is very different from a unanimous agreement, where everyone involved fully supports the agreement or outcome. Building consensus can be an effective tool for conflict management because it takes advantage of both the compromise and collaboration conflict management models. To effectively build a consensus, the participants need to be sufficiently involved to have some stake in the conflict, and have enough common interest to come to a mutually agreeable decision, solution, or outcome.

Consensus building

Consensus building is a very interesting process. Like a favorite family recipe, it requires several important ingredients, including trust, listening to understand, patience, ability to ask questions, willingness to speak candidly, and a desire to find the best outcome for the lab. The lab manager often needs to play a central role in consensus building to get the other participants to come together with open minds and to facilitate the discussion.

If consensus building is the goal, it is very important that the lab manager lead the discussion and prompt input, questions, and ideas from all of the participants. If the lab manager is planning to simply use authority to make the decision they want, regardless of the input from others, then the consensus building meeting will be viewed as a sham, and the lab manager will lose trust and respect from the lab staff.

1. Trust

Trust needs to be built over time. It is always needed around the lab to get things done. Building trust centers around having alignment between your words and your actions, and being dependable. As the lab manager, it is important that you understand the impact of your words and actions, and that they are consistent with the culture and purpose of the lab you lead. By modeling these behaviors, you can demonstrate trustworthy behavior, teach lab staff how to improve trust, and raise the overall trust levels in the lab. Without trust, consensus building, compromise, and collaboration are impossible.

2. Listening to understand

There is a huge difference between listening to understand and listening to reply. Too many times we are thinking about our next statements more than we are really focused on what the other person is saying. Listening to understand means using all of our active listening skills, like focusing on the speaker, avoiding interruptions, enabling them to say everything they have to say, accepting their perspective, seeking underlying meaning, having an open mind, and being curious. When we can integrate new ideas and alternatives, we are opening the door to compromise, collaboration, and consensus building. The beauty of diversity in the lab is the exposure we get to new and different ideas. We need to be open to them to find the best solutions for the lab.

3. Patience

“Patience is a virtue.” We’ve all heard it. How many of us have done it? Being patient in the face of big, awkward, or difficult decisions is very challenging. There is so much pressure on the lab manager to make the best decisions for the lab immediately, that being patient often feels like a luxury we can’t afford. However, to get the best decisions, we need exploratory conversations that enable everyone to contribute. To get consensus, we need sufficient discussion to address the key worries, fears, and anxieties participants may have, so they can feel comfortable supporting the decision. The lab manager must model this patience and find the right balance between the desire to get the best solution and the urgency to deliver. Finding that balance is difficult and only comes with experience and practice.

4. Asking questions

Asking questions is a great way to learn. To build consensus, each participant needs to feel sufficiently safe to ask the questions important to them. Getting those answers will enable them to confidently support the consensus position. Creating a lab culture of emotional safety will provide the environment for lab staff to ask the questions important to them. It is important for each person to feel supported during the discussion, and know that their concerns are valued by the team. Suppressing, ridiculing, or refusing to answer questions destroys emotional safety, and erodes trust. The lab manager can ask their own questions, actively request questions, and support a respectful conversation around questions to help build a consensus.

5. Speaking candidly

Candid conversation enables the lab to reveal the reality of the situation from different perspectives. This is very different from brutal honesty. Candid discussion enables everyone to tell their truth and be supported, whereas brutal honesty will tear people down trying to find a truth. To get the best outcome, the lab needs as clear a picture as possible of reality. Some of that reality may not be pleasant or optimal, but we can’t drive for improvement and best outcomes if the decisions are clouded by bias, fantasy, or lack of objectivity. The lab manager can lead this discussion by thanking staff for sharing their perspective and valuing each speaker’s views.

6. Finding the best outcome

Mixing the ingredients above will generate a real opportunity for the team to find the best outcome around which to build consensus. The best outcome may come from one individual, or it might be a synthesis of ideas from several participants. It also might not deliver everything that is needed or wanted, but it is the best choice of the alternatives available. Once this outcome is identified, it is time to agree to the consensus decision.

Consensus agreement

After the discussion and the identification of the best outcome, the team needs to conclude the consensus with an agreement. Each participant needs to commit to supporting the consensus decision, even though there may be elements of the decision with which they don’t fully agree. If for any reason someone can’t support the decision or outcome, then consensus has not yet been reached. Once everyone leaves the meeting, they need to actively support the consensus and help it be implemented.

Consensus is an important element of conflict management. It provides a mechanism for the team to use compromise and collaboration modes to reach the best decision for the lab. Reaching consensus requires trust, listening, questions, patience, candid ideas, and a desire to find the best solution. Once consensus is reached, all of the participants need to be able to actively support the overall outcome, despite having some reservations about any specific elements.