I’ve been thinking a bit about the distinction between the two lately, now that I’ve got some distance from the service hell that I’ve been in since earning tenure. Because you know what? They aren’t identical.
Consensus is about a group of people with disparate views hashing shit out and coming to a plan that every person agrees with, or that the vast majority of people agree with.
Compromise is something different. Compromise generally involves coming up with a plan that will work in the best possible way, in spite of the fact that most people would rather have something else. Everybody makes concessions, and nobody is terribly “happy.” Indeed, happiness isn’t the goal, nor is any sort of general agreement. Instead, everybody is pretty much losing something that they care a whole lot about, but they agree to go with the plan anyway, because it is better than the alternative.
Consensus is warm and fuzzy, and it indicates a certain optimism that people with diverse views can meet for hours upon hours and achieve some shiny, happy place of equanimity. And it indicates that once that shiny, happy place is discovered, that it will be the best possible solution. Everyone will be pleased with the solution.
Compromise is, well, cold and jagged. It assumes that consensus among disagreeing parties is impossible. Everybody has to give up something. Nobody is terribly overjoyed at the arrived at plan, but they agree to it anyway, because it’s what needs to be done to move forward. And nobody thinks that it’s the “best” solution (See: giving things up) but it often is the only solution that is actually a solution.
Here’s the thing: lotsa people, often people in leadership (administrative) positions, they talk about leadership in terms of “consensus-building.” In that version of leadership, everybody ends up happy. Nobody’s the bad guy. Least of all the “leader” (oftentimes figured as the administrator).
When you’ve got lots of people with strong disagreements, all of which have their merits, aiming for consensus is often aiming for the lowest common denominator. It’s not actually the “best” solution – just the one with least conflict. And so what you get at the end is something that is mostly valueless. Once you take away all the conflicts, sure, you arrive at consensus, consensus on something that is lukewarm and squishy and doesn’t really mean much. Sure, nobody’s pissed, and I guess if that’s your goal, not to piss anybody off, that’s grand. Except probably you haven’t addressed the issue that made you meet for hours in the first place.
In contrast, when you’ve got lots of people with strong disagreements, all of which have their merits, aiming for compromise means that you’re setting people up for a street-fight. Everybody’s going to have to duke it out and battle for something they believe in, and there will be winners and losers. And even the winners are going to lose something. Everybody ends up bloody and bruised. And everybody ends up angry. But. At the end of the day, you do end up with something that means something, something that’s worth something. Now, the down side is that there is always a bad guy, a fall guy, if you go for the compromise thing. Somebody will be to blame. Regardless of how good the ultimate plan is, and regardless of how well it actually works.
It’s worth noting that consensus is not something that is possible in a model that privileges shared governance between faculty and administration. Indeed, in all those university-wide committees, filled with faculty members, compromise, and not consensus, is the order of the day. The only people who privilege consensus are people who don’t really respect the power of debate, the power of disagreement. It’s about people who don’t want to ask tough questions or to answer them. Compromise requires the parties involved to meet each other halfway. Consensus requires people to pretend that there is no halfway.
For my money, I’d rather be the one to blame for something that means something than the one responsible for something that means nothing. But, at least from my current vantage point, it seems that this is precisely the reason that I am utterly ill-suited for any sort of administrative position. Because I care a whole lot more about getting things done, no matter who gets hurt – even if it’s me – in the process, than I do about making people happy or making people feel good about the decisions that get made. To me, being a leader means that you are able to convince people to compromise, even when they don’t want to compromise. It doesn’t mean trying to get everybody to like you and trying to get everybody to do a group fucking hug after every decision. To me, being a leader means being willing to take some hits, and to take some responsibility, as opposed to outsourcing it to the crowd. Consensus-building isn’t about being a good leader, in my experience. It’s about being a coward. It’s about a lack of vision. It’s about refusing to make the tough decisions. And it doesn’t make people like you more or respect you more. It just means that you don’t have to give people straight answers, and being able to pretend that your hands are clean.
Real leaders have dirty hands. Real leaders stand up to people who don’t like their decisions, they own them and they explain them. Real leaders make decisions, though they might consult with other people before making them, and they don’t make their decisions by committee.
I have no interest in a leader who values consensus over compromise. Frankly, a person who values consensus over compromise isn’t a leader at all.