Consensus: Going beyond collaboration

Working together is increasingly an expectation of successful organizations. Programmatic silos are understood to be a sign of disconnect. Layered leadership circles with hard divisions tend to produce distrust. Autocratic decision-making is experienced as heavy-handed.

These emerging trends in organizations are welcome. Building effective teams and fostering creative cultures depends on fluidity and shared ideas. Collaboration has become the new normal for most dynamic and successful organizations.

In collaborative cultures, decisions are often made through informal agreement. By virtue of working closely together and shaping strategies, actions emerge which have the consent of the working group, department, or even organization. In the end, however, there are typically some decisions which are reserved for individuals or small groups of people with specific authority.  Ultimately, collaboration provides a process, but not true sharing of power.

There is a proven decision-making discipline which takes collaboration one step further: consensus.

I recently worked for an organization which made all of its decisions via consensus. Whether it was the administrative team, the board, or a project group, whenever there was a decision about almost any aspect of the organization’s work, staff, and mission, moving forward was contingent upon the ability of the group to reach formal consensus.

It is often thought that consensus means that everyone has to be in total agreement and support of the proposed decision. The understanding is incorrect. Consensus more accurately describes a process through which all participants are expected to identify their relationship to the decision: support, stand aside, or block. Only a stance of blocking prohibits the decision from moving forward.

When someone chooses to block consensus, it is an opportunity to further refine the decision. Blocking is done in relation to some value that the organization holds, meaning the individual blocking a decision is really asking for the process to further clarify and address the ways in which the decision supports or undermines the values of the organization. It’s not enough to say “I don’t agree with this” or “I refuse to let it move forward.” Rationale based on pre-established organizational values is required.

Blocking, then, does not end the process, but rather extends it until the person blocking is either willing to join the consensus or stand aside. Standing aside is a way to say that, for one reason or another, an individual is unable to fully support the decision, but recognizes the need for the organization to move forward with the decision. I saw this happen when a staff member “stood aside” from a decision to close their unit. They understood the need, and were part of working toward that decision, but felt a loyalty to their staff, those who would be directly affected by this decision. To honor both, the staff member stood aside.

While the principle of consensus intends to be an inclusive process, sometimes it gets confused with democratic decision-making in which everyone has a say in the outcome. When consensus is the norm of decision-making in an organization, it’s important to be clear about who will be involved in the consensus and why. Which decisions are board decisions? Those will be made by consensus of the board. Which decisions are administrative team ones? They will be made by consensus of the administrative team. Which are decisions of program staff? They will be made by consensus of the program staff. For consensus to bear the weight of its outcome it must be clear who is involved in the consensus for each decision and why.

Overall, consensus decision-making is an effective tool for wise decision-making and decision ownership. Throughout the process of reaching consensus, everyone must make clear what their position is, and why they hold that understanding. Once consensus is reached, even those who have chosen to stand aside are agreeing to the implementation of the decision. The process is consultative, collaborative, and convicting.

Consensus decision-making is not for every organization, and even in organizations that use consensus regularly not every decision may be subject to consensus. But for organizations that seek an inclusive, power sensitive, thorough, and values-based decision-making process, consensus can be an empowering way forward.  

If you’re ready to examine your decision-making patterns and explore consensus decision-making as an alternate approach, contact me for an initial conversation.