Consensus Decision Making


Excerpted from _Group Leadership and Decision Making: Workbook_, Copyright 1981 by William Gellermann. All rights reserved. [reprinted without permission]

Decisions cannot always meet with everyone's complete agreement, but many decisions can be made _acceptable_ so that everyone is at least willing to go along. This means that no one has any disagreement that they consider important. A decision that is acceptable to every is called a _consensus decision_.

Some key guidelines for consensus decision making are:

  1. Approach the decision on the basis of logic and reason.
  2. Listen to other people's ideas and understand their reasoning.
  3. Describe your reasoning briefly so other people can understand you. Avoid arguing for your own judgments and trying to make other people change their minds to agree with you. (They can change their own minds.)
  4. Avoid changing your mind only to reach agreement and avoid conflict. Do not "go along" with decisions until you have resolved disagreements you consider important.
  5. View differences of opinion as helpful rather than harmful.
  6. Avoid conflict-reducing techniques such as majority vote.
Acting according to consensus guidelines enables a group to take advantage of all group members' ideas. By combining their ideas, people can often create a higher-quality decision than a vote decision or a decision by a single individual. Further, consensus decisions can be better than vote decisions because voting can actively undermine the decision. People are more likely to implement decisions they accept, and consensus makes acceptance more likely.

Often, other kinds of decision (such as people deciding alone, managers deciding, voting) are better than consensus, but when consensus is likely to be most effective, people need to know how to reach it.

In summary, consensus decisions can be better than other kinds because they enable groups to achieve higher-quality decisions (when pooling knowledge is desirable) and higher commitment to action (when acceptance of the decision is necessary for effective implementation). However, consensus is not always the best way to make a decision.

Leadership And Group Decision Making

CONTROL <-------------DIALOGUE-------------> SELF-DIRECTION

Leader  Leader and group discuss and then...    Group
decides                                                 decides

                Leader          Both            Group
                decides         decide  decides

                See below for kinds of group decision that can be used in
                making any of these group decisions.
Kinds of Group Decision Some Difficulties with Consensus
  1. People who do not actively try to find a decision that is acceptable to everyone (all-win) can dominate a group's dicussion by trying to make everyone else go along with them (win-lose).
  2. A group can coerce or manipulate individuals into saying they accept a decision, even when they don't. That is groupthink, not true consensus.
  3. People sometimes expect to use consensus even when leader decision, voting, or some other method would be better.
Consensus and "groupthink" are different. Groupthink occurs when everyone agrees with a decision, but some people are just going along because they feel obligated to reach an agreement and avoid conflict. Thus although there appears to be a consensus, some people have not resolved disagreements they consider important. In consensus, all agree with the decision and all important disagreements are resolved.