Consensus isn’t taking a vote

“We make all our decisions by consensus.” “We’re a consensus-based organization.” I must hear this from a client a week. When I ask about how consensus is reached, I hear some version of: “We give each idea that’s presented and discussed a thumbs-up, thumbs-down or a thumbs-sideways.” A what? ” A thumbs-sideways – it means ‘maybe.’ Then we count the thumbs. Whichever idea has the most thumbs-up wins. The people who didn’t give that idea a thumbs-up agree to live with the decision.”

Sounds like voting to me. Same process, same outcome: An idea is presented, there is discussion, the majority “wins,” and there is a disaffected minority who agrees to “live with” the decision – until the next chance they get to change it. Which means you’ll get to make this decision again…and again…and again. And that’s pretty much the opposite of a decision made by consensus.

So, if voting isn’t consensus, what is? I think of consensus as a series of small agreements that build to a solid decision. Consensus is bounded by realistic parameters which is what gives it its creative spark. It’s not an open discussion; rather it relies on structure for its tremendous freedom and power. Learning and listening is built into each step. Contention is too. By this I do not mean encounter group-style confessional displays, open weeping or chair-throwing. I mean being willing to be influenced by another’s point of view. I mean speaking honestly and openly and knowing the pleasure of having your point of view heard, understood and responded to. The response may be “yes,” ” I see it diferently,” or “oh yeah, and what about…” When flawlessly executed, consensus trumps group dynamics: it’s more compelling than rank, than being detached, winning or staying a victim. It’s tremendously energizing and the decisions do not have to be made again. Over time, the groups that learn this process become increasingly deft in their decision-making and follow-through.

I think this is the chief difference between consensus and voting. In consensus, there is resolution. The decision sticks because the process is transparently fair and inclusive of all points of view. Because of their constructive contention, the group coheres without slipping into groupthink. Their decision is effectively bulletproofed. Enacting that kind of decision is easy. Commitment from the organization comes more easily too.


It’s easy to see why organizations want to lay claim to consensus: Who wouldn’t want that level of cohesion and commitment?

Still, not every decision merits the time, attention and thoroughness of consensus. Some decisions are best made by voting, disaffected minority and all. Many decisions are better made by a leader who has been informed by her group’s input or feedback. Knowing which approach best suits your situation is the art of decision-making. And accurately labeling your current process – painful though that may be – is a good place to start.

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