To me, consensus seems to be the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies. So it is something in which no one believes and to which no one objects. – Margaret Thatcher
There’s an interesting pattern repeating in the world these days.
We’re seeing a shift to two very clear ways of operating – one where we make quick decisions on things we understand and another where we hope to find someone that we can trust to help us make the right choices.
The first is a transactional approach and the second a relational one.
And this is important because so much of what we do ends in a contract.
Perhaps not always a legal one, where you sign and pore over small print – but an equivalent one in your mind.
Which is why that quote from Thatcher sounds very strange to non-Western ears.
There, consensus building would probably be seen as the most important thing to do.
Because you’d hear the exact opposite from a Japanese company, for instance.
And the reason this difference matters is because of the way business and life works now.
If you have something simple to buy – an AA battery, for example, the chances are that you go on Ebay and buy whatever looks cheapest.
It might not be the cheapest – there might be one a few pence cheaper hidden on another page with a different description – but it’s not worth bothering about.
When you know what you want you make a decision based on price – when that price is satisfactory.
This is called satisficing – you’re not trying to get the best deal, just one where you think you’re now done with searching for something better.
And the larger the price the more time you’ll spend getting the best deal.
Ten years ago in Kenya we had a safari holiday which includes regular rest stops at shops selling handicrafts where you get a fairly hard sell.
At one of these shops I made the mistake of looking at a small carved giraffe.
The salesman pounced.
In Kenya the way of negotiating prices is to write them on a small pad.
He started with the number 8,000 shillings – around 80 pounds in UK money, I think.
I crossed out the last zero.
He looked rather put out – and we moved on.
Then another salesman started, telling me a story of how he had carved the giraffe himself.
So we took the pad out again and settled at 1,400 shillings.
This impressed everyone else on the trip no end, and one chap even insisted on taking a picture of the giraffe, the salesperson and me in front of an enormous one.
At the end of our trip, I found the same giraffe at the airport – for 500 shillings.
In the end, it all came down to price – and he was better than me but the extra money wasn’t much and it made for a story.
So the difference between buying a trinket on Ebay and buying it from that chap at the store was that he took a commodity and turned it into something bigger and more interesting.
But, did that make it any less transactional?
And the answer is no because a relational contract is not just about adding people to a product.
It’s about adding trust.
Robert Bruner says that you need three things for trust: sincerity, reliability and competence.
It’s trust that underpins a relational contract.
And Bruner says there is a simple rule – don’t work with someone you don’t trust.
What does this have to do with shortcuts and hacks?
Well, you can’t take a shortcut or hack your way to trust.
You have to earn it – by showing sincerity, reliability and competence over time.
And that’s something Thatcher appears to have forgotten.
The process of building consensus is a process of building trust.
If you have a belief and do things your way you might get your way but lose trust along the way.
Which is what happened to her.
And, many years later, the current political class appeared not to have learned that lesson either.
Why else would this country be in the state it is in – where politicians have so utterly failed to come to a consensus on the right way to proceed with what is perhaps the most important and divisive act in generations?
The fact is that transactional business has its place – and the computers will sort all that out.
As a human your job is to be trustworthy.