Reason 7

20151104_144824They Require You to Make Decisions by Consensus

The word ‘consensus’ probably has about as many working definitions as the word ‘participation’. And about as many problems associated with it too. The real problem is not consensus but the different definitions that we apply to it. Definitions that can be used like weapons to slow things down, manipulate thinking and generally turn a team into a plodding, boring nightmare.

One of the biggest misconceptions about coming to decisions by consensus is the belief that everyone on the team must AGREE with the decision. This is fatal since it allows those team members with personal agendas or pet peeves to stand up in their self righteous glory and whine that the team can’t move forward because THEY don’t agree with the decision. Don’t you hate it when that happens!?

Even though the word consensus is a noun it should be treated as a verb, a word of action. The end point of consensus is that everyone will actively support the decision made. You may not AGREE with the decision but you accept that your points have been heard and considered and that the team must move on. Given this, you will do what is needed to actively support the decision. When you use consensus in this way there isn’t much room for whiners.

There is often great discussion and sometimes even good fights as different points of view are expressed with real passion. Everyone agrees that a decision must be made and that if the team is to move forward, as a team, everyone must support that decision. If you complain about the decision to others, outside the team then you don’t have consensus, you have cowardice or dishonesty and your team is in deep trouble. Consensus requires courage and honesty. If your team lacks these qualities, make decisions by some method other than consensus. You will have to deal with similar issues but at least they won’t take as long to surface.

It’s curious how often teams are expected to decide by consensus, when most other organizational decisions in organizations are not made in this way. Decisions in organizations are generally made by the person with the greatest power, no matter how camouflaged this may be. So why on earth should teams be different? This is not to say that consensus isn’t a great way to make decisions, but it is useful to be aware this approach goes against the normal and well learned traditions of the organization. It will not be easy and there will be times when it just doesn’t fit the situation.

People in organizations have power and one of the consequences of this is they can make decisions by themselves. If your team is operating in this type of situation there will be many times when it is most effective to make decisions in the traditional way; it’s normal and it works. Consensus should not be an etched in stone rule or an unquestioned approach, but one that fits the situation.

Discussion and comment points for this post:

  1. Why do you think many teams assume they should be making decisions by consensus?
  2. Have you ever made a team ground-rule that you would make decisions by consensus only to discover each team member had a different definition of what that meant? Tell your story.
  3. When a team does use consensus do you think they should also talk about what active support for the decision looks like? What do you think it should look like?
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2 Responses

  1. First of all, forgive me, I use a lot of sports references. When it comes to the first discussion question, I think teams focus on consensus because people feel it’s the most inclusive thing to do and because they want to move forward with a plan. They think teams should proceed with one common goal (e.g. sports team common goal = to win) and we often believe that everyone has to agree or proceed in the same way to achieve that goal. To me, I agree with Tom, this is deeper than just the consensus on a decision. I see the “how do we get to the decision” as more important than the actual decision. If people are comfortable with how a decision was reached, they will be more apt to support the decision going forward. Overall, I think many teams need to focus more on valuing differences of opinion during the decision-making process (or differences in strengths). For example, If you have a basketball team and the point guard believes the way to the end goal (winning) is for him to have a lot of assists, that’s great; however, it’s only a piece of the overall picture. The center will have to rebound and everyone will have to score and play defense in order to win. So each person has to do something different along the way to achieve the end goal. How often do you sit in a meeting and someone immediately suggests a solution, decision, or end goal right at the beginning of the discussion and then you have to back track to discuss it. In my experience, when a team does this, they often get stuck because they feel they have to get consensus during the discussion. I think if teams focus less on whether consensus exists in the process of getting to the final decision and more on how to use everyone’s ideas to get there, team members would be better suited to support the plan going forward. I realize this is similar to what Tom said (just longer), but I just wanted to expand a bit.

    • Amanda, how cool to see your comment! Also cool to see you have landed on the ‘process of decision making’ as more important than the decision itself! You may have an awful lot of people vehemently disagree with you however, but between you and me, they are all wrong! You may have opened a can of worms here but a good can of slimy worms never hurt anyone….

      When I have posed the question to groups, ‘What’s more important, the decision or how that decision is made?’ the arguments are endless and often very heated. Usually it ends up with the group being angry that the question was asked in the first place!

      Your point ‘If people are comfortable with how a decision was reached, they will be more apt to support the decision going forward’ is critical here I think. Without good implementation, even the best ideas tend to fail and the variable of how the decision is made being important to implementation is very accurate. And there are numerous other ways to make decisions that people can get comfortable with than consensus.

      You noted that often consensus is seen as being the most inclusive way to make decisions and I would agree but I would also say that are a lot of other ways of being inclusive in a decision making process.

      It’s these ‘other ways’ that often do not get talked about and the default position of consensus is simply expected.

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