Does Anyone Actually Decide Anything by Consensus?

Does Anyone Actually Decide Anything by Consensus?

The longer I work as a consultant, the more confused I become by the term, “consensus.” Inevitably, when I ask a group of people how their group makes decisions, they say, “By consensus.” And when I ask them how they know when they have reached consensus, they tell me they just know it when they see it.

What Consensus-Based Decision Making Does Not Look Like

What I see, however, is often something quite different. Here are some examples:

– I see groups where one or two people dominate the conversation. For a while, a couple of other people push back and disagree. But when it is time to make a final decision, everyone caves and adopts the loud people’s position. Then they all go out in the hall and complain about the loud people.

– I see groups where everyone has lots of conversation about what they want to see happen. Then their boss weighs in with his or her thoughts, at which point all other thoughts fall off the table and everyone agrees with the boss’ idea. Then they all go out in the hall and complain about their boss.

– I see groups where there are robust conversations, a lot of energy, and many ideas up on flip charts. When it comes time to decide what to do with the ideas, the room instantly drains of energy, and the ideas are tabled until some later unspecified date. Then they all go out in the hall and complain that nothing ever gets done.

What’s going on here?

According to my handy on-line Merriam Webster dictionary, “consensus” means:

1. a: general agreement : unanimity
b: the judgment arrived at by most of those concerned

2. : group solidarity in sentiment and belief

My theory is that people have confused the term “consensus,” with “friendly.” Since people often want to be perceived as good- natured, easy to get along with, simpatico, etc., they opt for a decision-making process that they think will involve the least amount of strive and will indicate “solidarity in sentiment and belief.”

What Consensus-Based Decision Making Really Looks Like

Making decisions by consensus is actually an involved process that can require taking a difficult, and at times lonely, stance. And to answer the question I asked above, (“Does anyone actually decide anything by consensus?”) the answer is yes, but only groups and organizations that consciously follow a coherent process.

If you do an Internet search for “consensus-based decision making,” you will find that a fairly large number of non-profits and state and local governments make a concerted effort to use this type of decision making process. The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) has one of the clearest discussions of this decision makingmethod on its website.

ACT UP’s discussion of the differences between Voting and Consensus is particularly helpful:

Voting is a win or lose model, in which people are more often concerned with the numbers it takes to “win” than with the issue itself. Voting does not take into account individual feelings or needs. In essence, it is a quantitative, rather than qualitative, method of decision-making.

With consensus people can and should work through differences and reach a mutually satisfactory position. It is possible for one person’s insights or strongly held beliefs to sway the whole group. No ideas are lost, each member’s input is valued as part of the solution.

The key component of consensus is that everyone’s position is listened to and discussed – not just the opinions of the loudest or most senior. However, while the consensus-based decision making method requires that everyone be treated with respect, conversations can still become very heated. It can be particularly difficult if you hold an opinion that you think is very important for the group’s well-being, but the group does not share your opinion. In that situation, you have an obligation to clearly state and argue for your point of view and you have an obligation to know when to let it go.

In other words, contrary to the Merriam Webster definition, everyone does not have to be in agreement – unanimity is not actually required. What is required is that people agree that they will accept and abide by a decision, even if it is not their preferred decision.

So before you say that your group makes decisions by consensus, think about the last couple of significant decisions made by your group. Did everyone contribute or did certain individuals dominate? Was everyone listened to with respect? Did people ultimately agree to accept a decision, even if they were not strongly supportive? If you answered no to any of these questions, then your group decision-making process is not truly consensus-based.



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