Even the janitors don’t go down that corridor. Not any more, not for a very long time. The spiders moved in long since, creating a very different sort of website. The old-timers in neighboring buildings claimed that long ago, on a moonless Halloween night, a business had died there.
The last company to use that building tried to have the corridor blocked off. Each day the wall would be put up. Each morning, it was found broken and scattered, a trail of debris leading from the conference room at the end of the corridor all the way to the Keurig coffee maker in the kitchen.
Those who ventured into the corridor reported voices coming from the conference room, sometimes faint, sometimes loud, always indistinct. Always arguing, always debating, though none could say of what they spoke. Only one phrase would, from time to time, rise above the murmur, a phrase that struck fear into the hearts of all who heard it. Then, for a brief time, other phrases would emerge, before fading once more into inchoate argument.
Those who returned from the corridor were always quiet, subdued, as though some darkness had settled upon their spirits, a strange, mysterious darkness not easily dispelled. Either that or they suddenly realized that they had a lot of work to do and needed another cup of coffee. Yet, no force would convince them to walk down that corridor again, to listen to the voices coming from behind the closed doors at the end, heavy wooden portals locked from the inside.
What words had they heard? What phrase filled with horror those who heard it spoken in that cobweb filled corridor?
It was only this: “I call the vote.”
Four simple words. Four words that might seem innocent, harmless, a way to make a decision and move forward. Four words which left those who spoke them trapped forever in argument and debate.
The vote: there are those who claim it is the way all debates should be settled, all arguments brought to a close.
“It is how we do things,” they say. “It is the American way.”
When the vote is called, the tally counted, the argument does not end. It continues, on and on, through vote after vote.
“I didn’t understand the issues.”
“I thought a yes vote meant we weren’t going to do it.”
“We can’t vote on this yet, we haven’t considered all the issues.”
“I don’t care what we voted, that just won’t work.”
“We can’t vote on this. It wasn’t announced ahead of time.”
The vote settled nothing. No agreement was reached, no consensus created. People took sides, the arguments became more vocal, more strident. The debate less about the issues, more about convincing others or forcing agreement. Without consensus, each vote only convinced those who lost that their error lay in not yelling more loudly, in failing to persuade others. The value of the ideas, the goal of the meeting fell away, the vision of the business lost in the struggle. Winning the vote became the new goal, the new vision. To lose the vote was to lose face. Perhaps the vote was called without warning. Who knows?
Had there been a leader who could make a decision, perhaps that would have ended it. Or perhaps not. Sometimes decisions refuse to stay decided. More precisely, some teams are unable to make a decision and stay with it. They vote, over and over they vote, yet those votes settle nothing. Rather than end the debate, the losers join together to win the next vote. The issue refuses to die until, like a zombie, the debate itself has eaten their brains.
For a vote to work, first there must be consensus. For there to be consensus, there must be productive discussion, effective debate, meaningful argument. This takes time: not just time to argue, but time to learn how to argue. Most votes occur too soon, before the team is ready. Even a strong leader can’t always change that. Strong leaders draw out their teams, involve them in the decision even when the leader will have the final word. When the best leaders make a decision, in truth they are ratifying the consensus of the team. Their strength lies in their ability to bring about that consensus, to argue without being drawn into argument.
“I don’t care what the vote was, I’m in charge here.”
So the debate continues, on an on. Eventually, everyone else went home. Down that corridor, in that room, they call the vote, over and over, and nothing ever gets done.
Stephen Balzac is an expert on leadership and organizational development. A consultant, author, and professional speaker, he is president of 7 Steps Ahead, an organizational development firm focused on helping businesses get unstuck. Steve is the author of “The 36-Hour Course in Organizational Development,” published by McGraw-Hill, and a contributing author to volume one of “Ethics and Game Design: Teaching Values Through Play.” Steve’s latest book, “Organizational Psychology for Managers,” is due out from Springer in 2013. For more information, or to sign up for Steve’s monthly newsletter, visit www.7stepsahead.com. You can also contact Steve at 978-298-5189 or firstname.lastname@example.org.