Running an organization means making numerous decisions every day: Should the marketing budget be increased? Which employee incentives offer the best balance of cost and benefit? Should your nonprofit partner with another organization?
Some choices are simple, and in hierarchical organizations, it is often clear who is responsible for making the big decisions. But many groups are turning to consensus decision-making as a better way to foster positive relationships among stakeholders, achieve higher-quality decisions, and come up with creative solutions. We've pulled together all the information you need to understand and implement this collaborative approach to problem-solving.
What is consensus decision-making?
The goal of consensus decision-making is to come to consensus—a generally accepted agreement or outcome. This process involves getting input from all relevant stakeholders, encouraging open discussion, and implementing solutions based on collaborative effort and approval. With this method, the whole group has ownership of the process and the outcome.
When to use consensus decision-making
Consensus decision-making works best for problems that are complex and have numerous stakeholders and no clear solution. Because the process requires a period of discussion and aims to achieve overall agreement, it's particularly well suited for issues with several different perspectives.
Consensus decisions also require a group willing to participate in the process and discuss all aspects of the issue openly while being receptive to the perspectives of others. If agreeing on a path forward is more important than making the "right" decision, consensus decision-making might be the best method.
Consensus decision-making roles
While everyone in a consensus decision-making group is expected to contribute, it's often helpful to assign a few specific roles to help keep the process on track.
- Facilitator: The facilitator's role is to oversee the process. Facilitators' responsibilities include guiding the discussion and making sure the group follows the rules and agreed-upon processes. They are also responsible for deciding when to assess agreement, revisit the proposal, or introduce other decision-making tools like breakout groups or role-playing. The facilitator doesn't make the decisions or influence the discussion. An ideal facilitator is someone who understands the issue and is well-respected in the group. They will also have good communication and leadership skills and be able to exert the necessary authority to keep the discussion on topic and prevent unproductive and contentious debate.
- Timekeeper: It's easy to let the discussion go on and on without reaching a resolution. The role of the timekeeper is to make sure that the group sticks to a set schedule. You may want to establish time parameters when the discussion starts—either for the length of the discussion as a whole or for constituent parts like individual speaking times. In addition, if the process starts to drag on or feel repetitive, the group may decide to limit the time for further discussion. In either case, the timekeeper can use tools like verbal time updates or hand signals to enforce time limits.
- Notetaker: The notetaker keeps an accurate record of the proceedings, including the discussion points, areas of disagreement, and decisions. This role is particularly important when group members want to declare reservations or disagreements. Even though they may not block an effective consensus process, members are more likely to feel that their voice has been heard and to support the implementation of the final decision if their opinions have been recorded.
- Empath: The empath keeps an eye on the tone and mood of the meeting to ensure discussion and debate are being done productively. If the meeting devolves into personal arguments or gets emotionally heated, the empath can step in. The empath may suggest taking a break, asking participants to reframe the debate in more neutral terms, or employing other conflict resolution techniques.
Consensus vs. other decision-making processes
While the consensus process can be used in many different situations, there are other possible processes you may want to consider in certain circumstances.
In fact, any of the following can be used with the consensus process through something known as a decision rule, which is the level of agreement needed to make a decision. In some cases, a group will decide that consensus requires unanimity. In other cases, as long as no one blocks a decision, consensus is achieved.
- Unanimity: Unanimity is similar to consensus decision-making, in that it seeks to achieve group agreement. However, in the consensus model, group members can express reservations and stand aside while allowing the decision to move forward. In unanimity, however, every group member must agree with the decision for it to take effect.
- Majority: Most people are familiar with the process of deciding by majority rule. In this method, after a period of discussion, the decision-making body takes a vote. Any option that gets more than 50% of the votes is the final decision. Making decisions by majority ensures that most of the group is in support of the chosen solution. On the other hand, this decision rule means that minority voices often aren't heard and that the 50% threshold can be hard to reach if there are more than two options on the table.
- Plurality: Similar to the majority model, groups making decisions by plurality choose the option that receives the most votes. However, it's not necessary for the winning choice to meet the 50% threshold.
- A plurality decision rule works best when there are several options on the table and reaching consensus on any one option seems difficult. It also makes sense when the decision needs to be made quickly and the situation is relatively low stakes, like a decision about which venue to book for an upcoming event. Plurality achieves as much agreement as possible without spending significant time on competing factions and unsatisfied concerns.
- Delegation: This method—in which the decision is handed off to a person or small group—is most useful when the body feels like they don't have enough information to make a decision. If there's no time or desire to adjourn, gather more information, and reconvene, they can delegate the decision. Delegation is an efficient solution as long as the group consents to the process and to the chosen delegates.
Elements that guarantee successful consensus decision-making
The consensus decision-making model is flexible and can be adapted to the group's mission and needs. However, there are a few commonalities to most consensus processes. Before you jump into a discussion of the issue, check to make sure you've set up your consensus-building plan to address the following issues.
Prior value agreement
It's not expected that all participants in the process will agree on the solution to the problem at the beginning, but they do need to agree on the values that will guide the discussion and decision in order to proceed productively. For example, participants should agree that group members won't interrupt each other or that ideas won't be criticized during an initial brainstorming round.
Since discussion of the issue is an important part of consensus decision-making, you should make sure you have enough time to discuss it fully while still implementing reasonable time limits.
Inclusion of all stakeholders
Make sure to include everyone who has a legitimate interest in being part of the process. Failing to do so can harm group-member relationships and lead to decisions that aren't fully supported by all stakeholders. For example, if your non-profit organization is deciding on a new project, you may want to include volunteers and program beneficiaries in addition to professional staff.
Encourage everyone to speak up and voice their opinions. Participating actively in the discussion—while remaining respectful of all other group members—will result in decisions that have more universal buy-in.
In addition, encouraging everyone to participate rather than taking a more passive, observational role will avoid a situation in which the majority dominates the conversation. Often it's minority viewpoints challenging the status quo that's beneficial for insightful and creative group decisions.
Why consensus decision-making is valuable
Following are some of the ways that this type of decision-making can benefit local communities, business organizations, and other groups where finding agreement will result in the most effective decisions.
Encourages better decisions
Getting input from all stakeholders means that the concerns of everyone involved are considered. By taking all potential stumbling blocks into account and being open to all viewpoints, decisions are likely to be better and result in fewer problems and complaints down the road.
Supports effective implementation
When everyone has had a say, decisions can be implemented more effectively. Discussion fosters interpersonal connection among group members and when no one feels they've been outvoted or silenced, they're more likely to work to ensure a successful solution.
Maintains good relationships
Reaching consensus is not always easy. However, asking participants to discuss an issue openly—following the proper guidelines, of course—helps participants develop an understanding of each other's points of view even if some group members are not in full agreement. Group relationships can be maintained and even strengthened by the process of consensus, meeting the group's goals for the decision without unnecessary interpersonal conflict. Both the individual members of the group and the decision itself benefit from the decision-making process.
Protects minority opinions
In a method like majority rule, members in the minority may not even have a chance to express their opinions or reasons for disagreeing with the majority. In the consensus process, however, discussing minority concerns is critical. Everyone has a chance to have their voice heard, and this provision motivates the whole group to listen to every member and take their concerns into account.
Often results in surprising and creative solutions
An open and welcoming atmosphere is a great way to come up with ideas that may seem surprising at first. After discussion, exploration of potential concerns, and revisions, the new proposal could be the type of unanticipated result that wouldn't have occurred in a simple majority voting process.
Possible drawbacks of consensus decision-making
While the consensus-building process can work well for many organizations, there are times when it might not be the best solution or when seeking agreement among the whole group doesn't make sense.
Time-consuming and inefficient
For decisions that need to be made quickly, consensus decision-making may be the wrong choice. If you're facing an approaching deadline or need to take advantage of an opportunity with a limited timeframe, you may want to choose other options.
The best consensus process requires enough time to fully consider the situation and possible solutions and often involves multiple rounds of discussion. Even with time limits in place, the pressure of needing to agree right away may result in suboptimal decisions, a rushed process, or individual participants who feel that their voices weren't heard.
Pressure to consent
There can be pressure on members to go along with the group. Rather than block agreement, they may feel compelled to agree to a decision they have serious reservations about. Personal preferences can be stifled if the discussion has taken up a lot of time or group members are eager to wrap up. This can lead to dissatisfaction and less participant buy-in when the group needs to cooperatively implement the decision.
Groupthink is one of the most well-known ways that consensus decision-making can go wrong. In the 1970s, psychologist Irving Janis wrote about a group's tendency to prioritize consensus and agreement over examining an issue fully and coming to a good decision. Unlike a situation in which there is overt pressure from others to consent, in groupthink members convince themselves to stifle disagreement and may not realize that they are going along with a decision that might be nonoptimal or even potentially disastrous.
Eight steps of the consensus process
Every decision-making process will be different based on the needs of the group, but the following are some basic steps to help you keep your discussion and decision-making organized and productive.
Step #1: Define the issue
The first step to building consensus is to make sure everyone is focused on the same goal. This helps keep the discussion on track and also gives participants a way to express their opinions within the context of the issue. In addition, if the conversation starts to get off topic, both the group and the facilitator can step in and redirect the discussion back to the agreed-upon topic.
Step #2: Discuss the issue
This is the heart of the consensus process. The early stages of discussion should not involve adversarial debate. Rather, everyone should be encouraged to speak up. Think of the beginning of the discussion as an opportunity to put many ideas on the table without getting too attached to any one solution.
A good facilitator will recognize when to encourage more ideas. They may use techniques like brainstorming or dividing a large number of stakeholders into small groups. At the same time, the facilitator should move the discussion toward a conclusion when it seems like the group is starting to coalesce around a small number of possible ideas.
Step #3: Propose a solution
After a period of discussion, if there seems to be general agreement, the facilitator should make sure that there is a shared understanding of the solution. Each stakeholder should be given a chance to agree with the proposed solution or express their own individual preferences about the best way to move forward.
If the group has reached their preset time limit and a clear resolution has not emerged, the facilitator can propose a tentative solution and ask the group members to respond to it, with the goal of revising or discarding it and trying another.
Step #4: Review responses
Group members can respond to a proposed solution in several ways.
- Agreement: Just like it sounds, these are members who agree with the proposed solution and are ready to move forward with implementation.
- Reservations: If a group member ultimately decides to go along with the decision but still isn't in full agreement, they may express reservations. Members can express key concerns and have them entered into the record without derailing the process of the whole group. Expressing reservations allows members to make their voices heard without resorting to consensus blocking. It can also bring everyone on board to implement a solution, even if it is a contentious decision.
- Stand aside: Sometimes a member will not agree with the proposed solution but doesn't want to derail the process or block consensus. In that case, they can stand aside, allowing the decision to proceed without their support. This is a useful way to achieve consensus even when there is disagreement. However, if multiple group members choose to stand aside it might indicate a larger problem and the group may want to consider going back to the discussion stage.
- Block: Sometimes one or more participants will be strongly opposed to a decision and decide to block consensus. When this happens, the group cannot move forward. It is usually done when the blocking members feel that a decision is unethical or goes against the group's core values. When consensus is blocked, the group can revisit the discussion and try to come to an agreement on a different solution or turn to a different decision-making method. Each blocking party should be given a chance to express their reasons for blocking, which can help guide the decision about how to move forward.
Step #5: Note concerns
If the whole group is in agreement, the decision-making process is over and the group can proceed with the decision. However, if any members register concerns, stand aside, or block the resolution, the notetaker should record those. Then the whole group can proceed to the next step.
Step #6: Revise the proposal if necessary
The first version of any solution is rarely perfect. If disagreements are minor, the proposed solution can be revised. For example, if the group is deciding on a new employee retirement plan, there may be reservations that the proposed solution doesn't offer enough options. The revision may be to add more choices for plan participants or to give employees the choice of two different plan providers to meet their needs. However, if there is widespread disagreement, it might be necessary to go back and choose an alternative proposal.
Step #7: Repeat steps as needed
Sometimes the process must be repeated more than once before group members consent to a solution. It's unusual that one ideal solution emerges right away, so don't hesitate to consider proposal revisions or alternatives. This requires more discussion, which can be a valuable part of the process before coming to a final decision. Time limits are a particularly useful tool if the conversation continues for multiple rounds.
Step #8: Reach consensus and implement the decision
After the process has resulted in an agreed-upon solution, move forward with implementation. Although the consensus decision model is often successful, some groups may find that they simply can't reach an agreement. If this is the case, consider choosing another basic model for decision-making, revisiting the initial question, or examining the decision rules. If the group started out seeking unanimous consent, the discussion process may reveal that the whole group is willing to settle for as much agreement as possible.
Helpful tips for the consensus decision-making process
In many ways, consensus building is guided less by rules than other more formal styles of group decision-making. However, the following tips can help maintain group relationships, keep the discussion on topic, and ensure that everyone has sufficient time to express their opinion without letting the conversation go on too long.
Establish reasonable guidelines
It can be tempting to start a discussion before laying down some basic ground rules. However, consensus-based decision-making usually works better and more efficiently if there are some guidelines in place. Consider time limits to keep the process from dragging on. Reminding everyone of the need to stay on topic and making sure the facilitator enforces that rule will also lead to a more productive process when achieving consensus.
Foster an open environment for discussion
Just by using the consensus-building process, it may seem that everyone feels welcome to express their point of view freely. However, be proactive in creating and maintaining an atmosphere where the issue can be considered openly. Every group member should feel free to contribute.
It is primarily the role of the facilitator to help create this atmosphere and ensure that no individual member or group of members dominates the conversation. The empath can also keep an eye on the tone, making sure it always feels open and focused on finding solutions rather than on criticizing the opinions of others.
Listen to other viewpoints
During the discussion, group members will be eager to make their voices heard. But this process works best if everyone also focuses on listening to the viewpoints of the other participants. Allotting each member a certain amount of time to speak without interruption will ensure that others zone in on what is being said rather than trying to make themselves heard.
Unless a group reaches unanimous consent quickly, there is likely to be some disagreement. One way to encourage productive disagreement is to have someone—either the facilitator or a group member who opposes what was just said—restate the other person's argument before continuing. Even if they don't agree with it, expressing it in neutral terms helps foster mutual understanding and respectful disagreement.
Coming to an agreement and moving forward on complex issues doesn't have to be complicated or difficult. Using this guide to consensus decision-making will help your organization, group, or department achieve better-quality results and foster strong working relationships.