Let's stop solving conflict by "putting it to a vote"

Let's stop solving conflict by "putting it to a vote"

One of the most important skills I've learned over the past few years is how to deal with conflict at work. If you're working with a lot of bright and passionate people there are bound to be profound disagreements; especially around group decision making.

I don't believe that managers always need to be the smartest people in the room, or constantly be the one making decisions for everyone. Managers should help foster the discussion, make sure all voices are heard, and ensure that there's no bad blood when decisions are eventually made.

Raised voices and harsh tones make meetings very uncomfortable. It's kind of like screaming about politics with family at Thanksgiving, without the added benefit of turkey and gravy.

"Let's put it to a vote"

For the folks that are allergic to conflict there's a strong tendency to say "hey, let's put it to a vote". This seems great because 1) everyone gets a say, and  2) there is an immediate  and clear result. I have come to really despise hearing those words, and I'm rarely satisfied with the outcomes.

In a divided group the best circumstance is having a clear majority. The benefit is that you're able to decide and move forward, but that also mean that there's a group of "losers" left behind. By putting it to a vote, you fracture a single group into several opinionated factions, and then expect the group to come back together as one. On the other hand, if there isn't a clear majority then you're not any closer to resolution than when you started.

I need you to hear me, not agree with me

My main gripe with group voting is that it is often used as a way to cutoff discussion, and even if that wasn't the goal... it's often the result.

Group voting rarely happens at a moment where the parties have had ample time to calmly articulate the nuances of their positions. We usually opt for it when the conversation starts getting tense, or has dragged on for way too long. I am totally sympathetic to both of those situations, and it especially sucks leaving a meeting or conversation with lingering tensions.

I personally don't need to know that everyone in the room agrees with me, but I do want to know that they at least heard me and understand what I said. It would be very hard for me to feel comfortable contributing to conversations where I was constantly cutoff or knew I was completely misunderstood.

In that same vein, I work very hard to understand the folks I disagree with. I don't want to be known as a person who stifles discussions I disagree with, or to be known as a disagreeable person in general. I always try to appreciate the thought they've put into their arguments, ask clarifying questions, and pinpoint my problems with their arguments.

These conversations are important, and there is a way to have valuable discussions ahead of coming up with a go forward plan without voting on it.  

Driving conclusions without voting

Instead of voting, you might want to consider trying consensus or consent based decision making. The main idea that I like out of these is removing the notion of a majority, and forcing folks to decide along strict lines.

Both of these methods are fairly formal, but I think the fundamentals are important:

  1. Emphasizes clearly defining the topic, and creating a visual for everyone to see
  2. Incorporating everyone's perspectives and needs into the conversation, not just the most popular ones
  3. Ensuring there are no paramount objections to the decision being made, instead of trying to find a solution that everyone loves

In both of these models you're seeking consent to move forward. You want to find a solution that folks generally like, but also something that everyone can live with. The thing I appreciate most here is making sure everyone knows that they are being heard.

I've worked with some folks that are hard to please, and those folks are everywhere, but most folks just want to be respected and have their opinions heard. Plus, when a group is focused on hearing everyone's opinions, it's much easier for the kind of collaborative discussions that fosters a"best of both worlds" outcome.