Susan G. Bednar, LCSW

Group Development: Consider Consensus

If you’ve recently begun planning or have actually started a new group, it is likely that the topic of how you will go about making decisions has come up, or has at least crossed your mind.  Will you have a leader who is responsible for the big decisions, while perhaps gathering input from other group members?  How about a Board of Directors or Steering Committee of some sort that will provide direction to the group or to the leader?  Will group members themselves make decisions, and if so, what process will be followed?  Will there be elections of officers?  Voting on issues?  If voting, who will be entitled to vote?  What will constitute a quorum?  What percentage of voters must agree to a proposal before it is deemed approved?  If you aren’t going to vote, and don’t want a leader or a governing board or council, how will you make decisions?  Are you considering consensus decision making?  If so, do you have a structured process you intend to follow, or will your process develop more organically as the group works together?  Does everyone understand your proposed decision-making structure before joining your group?

These are important decisions, and should probably be made early on, preferably as the group is coming together around a common mission or set of goals, and deciding how best to achieve them.  While you are probably thinking about the size of your group, the expertise of various members, what you will be aiming to accomplish together, and how much time you have to meet your goals, some of the decisions about leadership and decision-making methods may seem to almost make themselves.  I hope to shake you up a bit here and ask outright:  have you considered consensus decision making for your group?  If not, I hope that you will throw this idea into the hopper with other possibilities you are considering.

What is Consensus Decision Making?

Consensus is a form of decision making in which every group member participates in the decision-making process as equals, and in which effort is directed towards taking action only with consent of every single group member.  There are no winners and no losers.  No voting takes place, because that would mean the majority would win and the minority would just have to go along, whether they liked it or not.  The group is most likely a leaderless group.  Everyone participates in leadership and nobody gets to call the shots or decide what the others have to do.  All ideas and viewpoints are considered valid and are discussed.  Each member is expected to share their ideas and their concerns, as well as to listen carefully to others and to consider their ideas and concerns.  Members work together to search for solutions that each and every one of them is willing to accept.  As long as any group member is not on board with a proposal, it does not go forward.  The search for a better version continues until consensus is reached.  Some consensus groups, especially larger ones, may appoint a facilitator whose job it is to keep the discussion focused on topic and to make sure everyone’s voice is heard.  The facilitator may be rotated, so that everyone shares in that responsibility eventually or an outside facilitator may be brought in to assist with making important decisions.  Other groups, especially smaller ones, may do without a facilitator, with all members sharing responsibility for maintaining focus and drawing out members who have not been vocal about their concerns.

What are the Advantages?

Having worked for an organization that used a consensual decision-making process, I have to admit I am very partial to this model.  In my own experience, this was the only place I have ever worked where I felt that my input was valued, where nobody took credit for work they didn’t do, where I could be confident I would never be disregarded or overruled, and  I could be confident that all of my team mates had my back. Once the group decided to move in a particular direction, we were all 100% on board with that decision.  I did not have to watch my back, or worry about whether another employee would try to undermine my efforts.  This was a true team effort.  Competition was not necessary, as every person’s input was equally valued.  All decisions of any importance were made by the team, and did not “belong” to any one person.  We made decisions together—even decisions about salaries–so there was simply nothing to compete for.

Stepping away from my personal experience, research suggests that consensus decision-making models make for better quality decisions, because the expertise of every individual is tapped, and because the unguarded discussion and weighing of options that takes place surfaces new and creative ideas.

What are the Disadvantages?

As you may have guessed, this style of decision making can be time consuming, although there are shortcut methods available for use in emergencies that require quick decisions.  Similarly, this style of decision making can be challenging with very large groups.  Techniques do exist, however, that can be used to make consensus possible even in large groups. So these are challenges more than contraindications.

Perhaps the biggest challenge in groups that aspire to consensus decisions is that it is critical that members agree on their purpose, and that they are firmly committed to consensus decision making.  All it takes is one member who isn’t on board to undermine and possibly derail the group process, so it is imperative that members be screened, informed, prepared, and trained to ensure that they are suitable for the group.  This may not be the best model for situations in which the members do not control the composition of the group.  Given a random sample of people charged with working together, some may be unwilling or unable to work this closely with others; some may be too ambitious, competitive or self-focused to open themselves up to a group process, or be unable to relinquish control.  Still others may not be in agreement about the group’s purpose, or may endeavor from the start to subvert the process.  Some may find the lengthy discussions and meetings to be tedious and may lose patience with the process.  So it is important to consider how you will bring new members into the fold, and how you will prepare them to be productive members of your team.  If you skip this screening and preparation, you may find yourselves in a difficult situation that will be challenging for your group to address.  Since no individual will have the power to remove a member from the group, bringing a difficult member in line or removing them from the group will have to be a consensus-driven process.

From my own professional experience, once again, I don’t think you can force someone into this type of decision making, nor can you be productive for very long if you have the misfortune of having members who intentionally subvert your process.  Plan carefully, and make sure that everyone you bring into the fold is suitable and prepared.  Not everyone will whole-heartedly join into consensus decision making.  If you know going in that some of your group members don’t want to do this, you may want to search for other alternatives.  If you are considering adding someone new to an established group and they express reservations about the consensus process, you may want to reconsider adding them.

Starting your Consensus Group

If you’ve decided as a group that you want to use consensus decision making, the next step for you will be to decide how your process will work.  You may wish to use a tried and tested methodology that you can learn and put into operation yourself.  If that is the case, begin your search for options, discuss them as a group, and decide together which one you wish to try.  On the other hand, you may prefer to make up your own rules and procedures.  Either way, your first exercise in consensus will be to discuss the options, share your thoughts and your concerns, listen to the thoughts and concerns of others in your group, and decide as a group how you will proceed.  You will know you’ve succeeded with this first task when all of you have agreed to move forward in a manner that each and every one of you is comfortable with.


Important Note:  This blog is intended for informational and discussion purposes only, and does not substitute for professional care.  Your circumstances may differ from those discussed, and your needs may be different.  If you are experiencing distress you feel unable to resolve on your own, please seek assistance from a qualified professional of your choice.