We all have been in a meeting with a team discussing a challenge in the project. One of the engineers has strong opinions and loudly shares ideas. Around the end, it looks like people start to accept the engineer's ideas. To confirm everyone agrees, the leader repeats the suggestion and asks if there are any objections. Silence appears—that awkward silence. The leader waits for five seconds while thinking that there is a consensus. The words fell from the leader's lips while thinking everyone agreed: "Well, it looks like that's how we are gonna solve this problem."
The leader assumed that everyone was aligned with the decision and reached a consensus, but that was a mistake. Consensus decision-making means everyone explicitly agreeing to the proposed idea. If this is the decision-making style a leader is looking for, then they need explicit agreement from everyone.
Whenever I see a leader assuming anything, it often turns out wrong. Guessing is one of the biggest leadership mistakes, and it shows that the leader is not carefully listening. Many leaders fail to read the air and to listen proactively with attention to the details. Effective listening consists of listening, asking clarifying questions, reading between the lines, and understanding facial expressions. The last two, reading between the lines and understanding facial expressions, are very difficult. Many leaders struggle with them and start assuming things.
Why do we have these silences?
When a leader effectively listens, they discover common patterns that form these silences.
People avoid confrontation. Depending on their cultural background, education, the companies they worked for, and personality, people dodge when there is a possibility of a conflict. For example, when working in Turkey, I couldn't imagine myself confronting my boss in a meeting, and it was customary to have disagreements with peers, not the boss. So, while I disagreed with my boss in a meeting, I stayed silent.
After moving to Germany and assuming many Germans as more contentious than Turks, I thought I wouldn't face a similar situation. However, I was wrong, and I learned that it's all about the environment.
When the environment is set and created correctly, any person can confront ideas and proposals. When there is a poor environment, nobody will experience safety and be confrontational.
In a safe culture that everyone feels open and comfortable, people become more friendly and accept criticism and objection in a good manner. However, confronting ideas in public—in front of others—demands good moderation.
Great moderation also breaks people's inner critics. Some people have objections and fresh ideas, but they think everyone will find them stupid if they share. When there is a crowded meeting, it becomes more frightening for introverts and these folks to offer a new perspective to change direction from the previous idea. They prefer staying silent. While their inner thoughts build up, they get distracted from the meeting and lose their focus.
Recently, it became easier to lose focus. When we think about distractions, especially in virtual meetings, we see that people answer Slack notifications, read other documents, surf on the Internet, and take care of other side-tasks. Therefore, they sometimes wait for another person to speak up. When a loud person dominates the discussions while others are distracted, it becomes easier to mistake that everyone agrees.
Sometimes, people don't give up but wait for an invitation. In some cultures, people won't speak up unless someone passes them the ball and mentions their names explicitly. When the leader is not aware of this difference, they fall into the assumption trap.
No Objection ≠ Agreement
Assuming consensus in the absence of objection leaves out the good, bad, and diverse ideas—all of them. Many companies work hard to create a diverse culture yet fail to take advantage.
Understanding people's backgrounds, especially underrepresented minority folks', helps to bring out fresh perspectives. People might have a different history that prevents them from speaking out as loud as possible. Leaders and moderators have to create an environment that will break the historical causes.
Assuming consensus makes people feel frustrated and unheard. It also prevents extracting the best results because high-risk problems and mistakes can stay unnoticed. People might have hidden knowledge that can point out errors. When these people don't share their objections or ideas, we increase the risk in our decision.
The awkward silences increased their appearances and became a norm with virtual meetings. These moments create a misconception that everyone agrees with the proposal. Even if consensus is not something the leader is after, it's worth hearing the objections because in consent or "safe to try" decisions, all objections must surface to reduce the risk.