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DECISION MAKING: Taking the Mystery Out of Building Consensus

A lot of people throw around the idea of building consensus as a way to sound collaborative. “Hey, let’s be in consensus on this idea, okay?” or “We want our managers to build consensus with the workforce, rather than just telling them what to do.”  In fact, there probably aren’t any people who are against consensus, per se. It’s just that no one knows how to build it and make sure they’ve got it. And rarely do we want to devote the time required to actually achieve it.

Consensus is a belief that you might see something I don’t or can’t see.

Consensus is a creation of the Quakers, who called it “participatory humility.” That’s because consensus building requires that everyone has an opportunity to be heard on a topic. That process, all by itself, requires excellent facilitation skills:  drawing out the quiet ones, toning down the dominating ones, keeping people out of quick positioning, and exploring alternatives when no one wants to budge. Unlike any other forms of decision making, consensus is about both agreement (majority rule concept) and support.

Consensus is a belief that you might see something I don’t or can’t see. By sharing various points of view, all the aspects are seen by all of us. Then the objective is to find a solution we can “live with” rather than just finding our own solution. By “live with” we are also agreeing that we won’t talk against the decision outside the discussion or meeting. In other words, I can’t express consensus in the meeting and then go disagree with it to my boss or co-workers.

When building consensus, we actually treat silence as disagreement, very contrary to what is seen in typical decision processes. Most of us think if someone doesn’t say something that the person must agree; the opposite is the truth.  In order for people not to be silent, we must use an agreed-upon signal to indicate our consensus. That can be head nodding, thumbs up, or any variation that clearly lets the facilitator know each individual’s commitment. Just that action alone changes the tone and accountability in any meeting. Consider these contrasts:  one meeting where a person tosses out an idea for a decision, a few heads nod and the group moves forward – with five or six members never saying anything. In the other meeting, a person tosses out an idea, the facilitator starts to query how others feel about the idea and senses agreement, then calls for consensus and everyone gives a thumbs up. It is a very different energy that is shown in the second meeting.

The act of consensus requires that individuals be able to block consensus (thumbs down). It’s wise to set up some rules for blocking such as requiring the individual to explain the rationale for the block and offering an alternative the person can live with.

So, what might consensus look like in real terms? Let’s say the team is having a discussion and someone makes a suggestion for a way to act. The facilitator asks the individual, “Would you like to make a proposal for that to happen?” The individual frames the suggestion as a proposal and the facilitator asks the group, “Are there any concerns?” As members raise concerns with the proposal, they are each addressed, either with modifications to the proposal or stand-asides (an adjustment that helps the team move forward). The facilitator then either asks to have the proposal restated or does it him/herself and calls for consensus. At that point, every member must show the physical sign for consensus. If a member blocks or does nothing, the proposal goes back for more work.

We do not support the idea that consensus means you only need a certain percentage to agree. The only time that is allowed is in meetings of over 40 people when you are seeking a “super majority” or 66% – but even that isn’t called consensus.

Let me encourage you to visit our website’s teaming tools for other information on consensus, including a sample decision making protocol.

To my mind, consensus building is the most sophisticated form of decision making. You see, in an autocratic decision, I can decide; in minority rule, only two of us have to agree with the decision; in majority rule, I just need over 50% of us to agree. Only consensus says, “we all have to be able to live with it.”

The benefits of striving for consensus:  it builds commitment to decisions, promotes a sense of team and trust, encourages members to contribute new ideas, fosters an attitude of collaboration and that no one person has all the answers.

  • Consensus is so important in todays business environment. With everyones belt tightened, all stakeholders need to be on the same page and supporting the same initiatives. Precious limited resources need to be allocated without subterfuge or undermining a decision.
    Unfortunately I’ve seen numerous instances where people walk out of a meeting where they strongly disagreed with a plan or even have key information they did not contribute.
    When using consensus, there is a need to build an environment of credibility and trust where people are willing to put themselves forward so that the best decision and plan can be developed. Everyone does indeed know something we dont and has value to add.

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