What is Consensus Decision Making?
Consensus decision making is a creative way of reaching agreement between all members of a group. The consensus building approach demonstrates a commitment to finding a solution that everyone can support or at least live with. It ensures that all opinions are considered and aims to come up with proposals that work for everyone. It is a concerted attempt to meet the interests of all stakeholders. It functions on trust, cooperation and mutual respect. It’s about working with each other rather than against each other. It requires active participation by all and equal distribution of power among the group.
Groups will typically engage an objective third party, who has no stake in the outcome to facilitate the conversation, set the ground rules, collect and synthesize the information and formulate proposals. The facilitator is usually the one responsible for keeping a written account of the process so that it may be reviewed by all. A good facilitator can get people moving in the same direction, draws in outliers, keep the process logical not personal and brings closure to discussion with a decision and plan.
What Needs to Be Decided? How Will It Be Decided?
Laying the foundation for consensus building is key. Without a clear understanding by all as to what the problem that needs to be solved is, you cannot begin to do this work. You must also provide context for the decisions to be made; why is it a problem? What are the concerns? What are the key questions to be asked? What are the options, objections and considerations?
The group will need to determine how they will come to a decision. Ideally, a good facilitator can artfully guide the group through a process that requires no formal voting. In fact, that’s really the goal but the exploration of pros and cons can get turbulent, necessitating a plan for how to handle objections.
The goal is to find common ground by weaving together different ideas and developing proposals that address the fundamental needs and key concerns of the group, but all kinds of situations can and will arise. After all, the folks around the table are presumably passionate about the challenge they’ve been assembled to address. The group will need to determine in advance what will constitute a decision, should there be an impasse. Options are plentiful and at the discretion of the group. Some examples are a super or simple majority, a referral to a committee or leader for final ruling or a trial period. An impasse can be avoided if the groundwork is laid that members are willing to accept the best effort of the group and that the solution may not be their first choice, but they are willing to allow the process to move forward while registering their concerns.
Conditions for Consensus Decision Making
Everyone present needs to share a common goal and be willing to work together towards it. Make sure the goal is visible for the full group to see. It can help focus and unite the group as discussion evolves.
One of my favorite techniques in helping groups through resolving disagreements and finding consensus is to remind the group about what they agree on. I’ll use language like; “We seem to all agree that….” Or “I’m hearing that everyone feels the same about….” and I’ll ask for confirmation from everyone that I have captured that correctly. So right out of the gate, we have established agreement. Identifying what the group agrees on is a powerful and positive way to start.
It is imperative that every stakeholder be included in the decision-making process. Without full engagement of every group member, you set yourself up for implementation failure. Silence or inaction on the part of even just a few group members will make it difficult to move a decision into action.
Make sure that you spend plenty of time developing what the shared goals of the group are and gain their commitment to working together to find a common solution. Make sure everyone understands how the process is going to work. Confirm that the group has all the necessary information it needs to make informed decisions. Encourage participants not to hold back from sharing their concerns or motives. Participants must be listened to carefully and more importantly understood. Everyone should explain their viewpoints in depth. What is at the root of their worries? What are the issues that are vital and what are the ones we can let go?
Whether you have been brought into help a group resolve a disagreement or you are managing your team’s efforts to find a solution to a problem, it is your duty to see to it that every person in the group actively contributes opinions, suggestions and ideas. No wall flowers allowed. This doesn’t mean that you aggressively force a quiet member of the team to speak. In fact, that approach will probably result in that group member shutting down. Full participation requires a soft touch. Members must feel safe and they must trust that whatever they share will not be mis-used. Laying out ground rules in advance of the consensus building process is key to allowing full participation.
Consensus Decision Making ground rules to consider;
- If you don’t understand something, say so. There are no stupid questions.
- Be willing to work toward the solution that’s best for everyone, not just you.
- Help create a respectful trusting atmosphere. No one should be afraid to express their opinions.
- Explain your own position clearly and concisely. Be open and honest about your reasons.
- Listen actively to what others say. Try to understand an alternative viewpoint.
- Think before you speak, listen before you object.
Members of the group must understand that they are all there to find a solution that satisfies most. There will need to be compromise and collaboration. Egos should be checked at the door. Participants must understand and abide by the ‘no soapboxing’ rule. A member present only to hammer one point over and over without listening to and genuinely considering other’s viewpoints, is not going to be contributing to the group’s success.
Trust and team building exercises may be helpful in advance to mitigate this challenge. Participants should have an opportunity to get to know each other socially and share things about themselves that may provide context for why they feel the way they do. This practice will also help people feel connected, leading to better cooperation.
The collective goal of the group is to work toward a common solution despite differences. This means that all interactions between group members should be collaborative discussion not adversarial debate. No yelling, name calling or finger pointing. Conversation is about the ideas and opinions being shared not the people sharing them. Make sure participants are speaking only for themselves when they state an opinion. Even if they know others in the community agree with them, the use of “we think” vs “I think” can be contrary to a climate of cooperative discourse.
Simply put, everyone has an equal voice. This can be challenging but not impossible. Of course, the fascinating thing about group dynamics is that vocal participants emerge along with those that prefer to express themselves quietly. A good facilitator will implement techniques to allow for all members to contribute in the way they feel most comfortable. Dominant behavior should be discouraged from the get-go with the establishment of group norms.
If need be, participants may be gently reminded during the session that meeting time is limited and that we want to make sure we hear from those that have not had a chance to speak. You may use a ‘go around the room’ strategy or break larger groups into small ones helping to create space for reluctant contributors to be heard.
Benefits of Consensus Decision Making
So, you may be thinking…. this sounds like an awful lot of work. You’re right. It is and can be cumbersome and uncomfortable at first. So, why should you do it? Two words: Better decisions.
In our culture, decisive ‘take the bull by the horns’ leadership is valued and admired. Someone who can seemingly decide on the spot without any advice, support or additional information is revered. Yes, I will agree that this can be an excellent quality among those that have to make split second decisions in crisis situations.
I also appreciate nimble business leaders that don’t belabor decision making by having to consult every level of the organization. That quick response ensures that opportunities will not pass them by because they weren’t able to pull the proverbial trigger.
I would argue that decisions which may affect an organization, a company, or a community for a long time, should consider consensus decision making, specifically where multiple stakeholders with different perspectives and potential outcomes exist. Decisions where all viewpoints, opinions, ideas and concerns are accounted for and fully vetted are sure to be more fair, reasonable and representative of the full establishment.
It makes implementation easier because you’ve already cultivated buy in by all parties through the consensus process. The stakeholders are more likely to fully engage because they have been a part of the planning. There is less resentment and rivalry because that has been addressed and resolved in advance. There are less likely disgruntled losers that may be inclined to undermine or sabotage the action required because they have had the chance to declare their hesitations and perhaps gained concessions that make the plan more acceptable to them.
People disagree because they are not hearing each other, they have different values or experiences or there are outside factors that are influencing their perspective like personality or history. Consensus building gets at most of this and allows you to make progress despite it.
If you’d like to learn more about HRP’s Organizational Strategy consensus building work, please call 603.749.8989 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.