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Reaching Consensus on Key Decisions as a Self Directed Work Team

Consensus is about agreement and support, unlike voting which is just about agreement. It’s a belief that when you disagree, you see something another person isn’t able to see. Therefore, the goal is not to push past you, but to try to understand what you see. It’s not about voting or any decision-making process that divides the team by leaving one group winners and another group losers.   Consensus was founded by Quakers who called it “participatory humility” and because of this ideal way to collaborate teams find clarity and union around the many decisions they have to make as they become self-directed.

Rules of Consensus

  1. Everyone must feel they have had a chance to be heard. This is why it is so important for the Facilitator to “scoop” everyone into the discussion. A good Facilitator will not call for consensus unless all have had an opportunity to be heard on a topic.
  2. Everyone must agree that they can “live with the decision.” This doesn’t mean it’s their favorite decision, just one that they can live with.
  3. Everyone must agree they will not talk against the decision outside the group. This eliminates the “meeting after the meeting” when people collect to discuss how they really feel.
  4. Everyone uses an agreed-upon process to indicate consensus. Thumbs up = consensus; thumbs sideways = need more time for discussion and exploration of alternatives; thumbs down = block the decision; do not think it is a wise decision for the team to make at this point.

When a team member gives a “thumbs down” signal that blocks the consensus, the burden is on the “blocker” to explain why he/she is blocking and to try to offer a suggestion to help unblock the decision.  The decision does not move forward while there is a block to the decision.  This method provides tremendous power and accountability to each team member in the decision-making process.

Blocking Consensus

There are some rules for blocking:

  • The team member must have participated fully in discussion prior to blocking
  • The team member must consider the needs of the whole team in addition to
    their own needs
  • The blocker must clearly explain the reasons for blocking the decision
  • The blocker must try to offer an alternative or compromise. In advanced teams, the blocker MUST offer an alternative


Sometimes the team splits down the middle with half of the team thinking A is a good idea and half thinking B is a good idea. It feels like an impasse. Rather than staying stuck and arguing, the facilitator can ask the team to think of stand-asides — modifications or adjustments that might help the team move forward. Here are the most common stand-asides:  agreeing to try something for a month or so without making a lasting commitment; not requiring a team member to work on a given task; and recording the dissenting view in the scribe notes.

Addressing One Proposal at a Time

When a team member provides a decision “proposal” for consideration, the facilitator restates the proposal and asks whether there are any concerns and areas for discussion.  This opens the door to dialogue before consensus is called and allows anyone with a problem with the decision to voice his/her concerns.  The team works to mitigate the concerns and/or modify the proposal (with the agreement of the original proposer).  When the discussion is complete the facilitator then “calls for consensus” at which point team members show their thumbs.  Usually a team will try three rounds of consensus on a proposal before opening the discussion for new proposals.  At no time is there more than one proposal being considered.  If other proposals have been presented, they reside in the “queue” until the original proposal is approved or voided by the team.  This process provides team members with a sense that every decision proposal will be carefully reviewed and considered; as a result, trust is built on the team that decisions are not made elsewhere and then presented to the team.

Teams have all sorts of options when it comes to decision making, ranging from spontaneous agreement to a full consensus process.  It’s important that the team know and exercise the full set of options to keep momentum on the team moving forward.  Not every decision requires full consensus of the team, although the team must decide by consensus to use a different decision making approach if they choose.  Consensus is about accountability, transparency and truly working together as a team to reach key decisions.

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