3 Approaches to Consensus in the Multicultural Workplace

Let’s Disagree to Agree to Disagree

Vincent Vanhoucke
5 min readMar 25, 2022
Credit: https://www.rawpixel.com/image/2789456/free-illustration-png-discussion-thinking-people

The environment I work in is wonderfully broad in its cultural diversity. My colleagues hail from every corner of the planet (flat-earthers rejoice …), and the richness of these life experiences is a delight to witness on a day-to-day basis.

The leadership challenge buried deep in that wealth of diversity is that every cultural background comes with its own set of expectations when it comes to interpersonal dynamics. Of course, every person’s attitude towards workplace relationships is intersectional and not entirely determined by culture and background. But there are broad trends that tend to align culturally and often challenge international teams.

The biggest difficulty has to do with expectations around consensus building. Imagine a meeting where a decision is on the table. You can either end it with an agreement or a disagreement. The challenge is that either outcome can mean very different things to different people.

For some, an agreement just means exactly what it says: we agree. And disagreeing is an equally reasonable outcome — it merely means more work is needed. People who align with this way of thinking are very comfortable with the ‘agree-to-disagree’ philosophy of decision making that has become a hallmark of the US workplace. Within this typical framing, avoiding overt conflict is generally favored over strong advocacy or lengthy attempts at consensus-building: difficult decisions may be deferred, happen offline, or be escalated to an authority figure.

For others, any state of conversation other than full agreement is extremely uncomfortable, and demands swift resolution. By and large, those with that mindset will go to extra lengths to evade disagreement. In this debating style, you may often hear variations around ‘Yes, I agree, but <the opposite of what you just said> …’. Some will work hard at building consensus step-by-step, and expect compromises to be made by every participant in the process. In the extreme, some may alternatively try to reach for the ‘smallest agreeable unit,’ even if it’s just agreeing that the sky is blue, in order to end a meeting with some closure. Others will end up verbally agreeing to anything merely to save face, while in fact no consensus has been reached, and subsequent actions will not reflect the agreement seemingly on display during the meeting. Let us call this the ‘agree-to-agree’ camp: consensus, real or perceived, is the primary goal of any discussion. Consequently, intervention by a decision-maker is often seen as a failure of the process.

For many others, actually driving to an explicit consensus is far from being the desired outcome of a conversation: they naturally expect every participant to stand by their stated position, and consensus is merely reached implicitly by the total sum of the perspectives discussed in the room. I’ll label this the ‘disagree-to-agree’ attitude: people with this mindset seemingly exit every meeting still forcefully disagreeing with everyone else. They often argue their case tooth and nail. They tend to be very comfortable with a lack of resolution, and people talking past each other. Generally, they will also, and without loss of face, quickly align with any decisions once they’re made by a decision maker.

Of course nothing is ever clear cut, and people individually tend to land in the simplex of these three attitudes toward consensus and negotiation(*), with varying degrees of comfort with other people’s attitudes.

In my experience, these three poles often lie at the root of the thorniest issues and misunderstandings, particularly in a multicultural workplace. The agree-to-disagree camp is frequently completely blind to the notion that the outcome of a conversation is not always to be taken at face value, and are often genuinely surprised when subsequent actions don’t match (‘but I thought we agreed …?!’) They often demand cards on the table, cornering the agree-to-agree camp into an uncomfortable public display of dissent, and the disagree-to-agree camp into further escalation of their point of view. They may also want a decider in the room, which often feels unnecessarily bossy to everyone else. The agree-to-agree camp is routinely horrified by the disagree-to-agree attitude, and perceives violent conflict where others might merely see a friendly, productive, spirited discussion. In the face of an unyielding position, they will desperately try to get alignment and are baffled when others don’t seem to engage (‘I keep on speaking, and they keep on not listening …’). The disagree-to-agree camp is often incredulous at other people’s attempts at smoothing the conversation toward a consensus, or at people merely changing their mind, alternatively labeling it as weakness or intellectual confusion. They often overstate their case because they have no expectation that anyone would eventually have to align with it (‘my position would be obvious to a 5 year old …’), to the ever-factual agree-to-disagree camp’s utmost annoyance.

This disconnect is often compounded by varying expectations about the role of decision-makers in the face of disagreements: to some, no actual decision exists until it is called by the authority figure. To others, having to make such calls can only be the unfortunate result of an escalation. As a manager, what the person on your left may see as a welcome stamp of approval, the person on the right could also see as evidence of a humiliating failure to reach a consensus.

Why even attempt this kind of taxonomy and risk falling into stereotypes? To be clear, I don’t believe any of these approaches to be worse than any other. The agree-to-disagree approach is efficient but can lead to dismissing real issues too early or brushing past the crux of a problem. Driving for consensus, in the agree-to-agree-style, often leads to a lot more in-depth analysis, at the cost of a higher risk of decision paralysis, or of accidentally steering the group to an entirely hollow consensus. The expectation of a good public disagreement, disagree-to-agree-style, is often a great way to clarify one’s thoughts, and rich debates are often good at eliciting out-of-the-box ideas, but makes every conversation feel like an exhausting high-stakes joust. These approaches to decision-making all have pros and cons and, in an homogeneous environment where the implicit rules of engagement are clear, are all equally productive. Problems mostly arise when people in a meeting are very far apart on these dimensions, and are not self-aware enough to understand their own biases and that of others.

This is when I have found that labeling these disconnects can be useful. I don’t know that my made-up taxonomy is the best way to label these differences, and I would welcome anyone presenting me with a better one, but it has been useful to me in laying bare how much talking-past-each-other in meetings is deeply rooted in people’s approach to interpersonal relationships, and ultimately are much more about style than content.

(*) By symmetry, there ought to be a ‘disagree-to-disagree’ perspective, but thankfully I’ve only ever seen it on display in political debates, where avoiding any perception of consensus has become an art form.



Vincent Vanhoucke

I am a Distinguished Scientist at Google, working on Machine Learning and Robotics.