Influencing Groups: Why You Don’t Need 100% Agreement

When persuading groups, you don’t need unanimity or an overwhelming mandate to generate agreement; you need critical mass.

Consensus is something everyone can live with, not something everyone would die for. With that in mind, focus on the pragmatism of the numbers. That means that “being right” in your own mind isn’t sufficient. You may have all the facts and all the right conclusions, but that still doesn’t mean your idea will become reality in a group setting.

You must be cajoling and politically savvy. “Work” the system, just as you would “work” a room when you’re networking. You don’t want to meet everyone, just the people who can help you the most. (A politician wants to convince every voter to vote for him or her but is most interested in those voters who can deliver — through their own influence — thousands of additional votes. Hence, a union officer is more attractive to a politician than a union member.)

Groups are not sentient creatures as an entity, but they contain sentient creatures. The legal and marketing departments will have different views on your pitch than, say, the R&D and finance departments.

In other words, where others stand on an issue depends on the professional background they bring to the discussion and the impact a “yes” will have on their job, rank or career.

One of the weaknesses of group influence is that the task takes much longer because of such dynamics. You have to stay the course and, in some cases, outlast opponents who will eventually be transferred, promoted, retired, terminated, or otherwise obscured or overruled. Sometimes, no other way exists, so be prepared for a long-term persuasion arrangement in which you might need to create allies who recognize how they can prosper from your ideas.

Why Consensus Is Overrated

Sometimes the most compelling path to persuasion isn’t via group buy-in. In fact, dissension in the ranks can establish you as a bolder leader.

Leaders are paid to achieve results. Period. They often, therefore, must make tough decisions — decisions that others might shy away from or try to drown in a group setting. U.S. Army General Dwight D. Eisenhower didn’t call a meeting before launching the D-Day invasion of Europe, and US Airways pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger III didn’t ask permission from the control tower prior to landing Flight 1549 in the Hudson River after geese disabled engine power.

In other words, leadership doesn’t happen by committee. When the situation warrants, you need to make the tough call. So the next time you’re in a meeting and consensus regarding your ask seems unforthcoming, be the voice of reason for the group and render a decision that you know will result in the right outcome.

You lead by creating results from which the majority will benefit — even if the majority doesn’t agree with you at that moment.