Haley Baird Riemer
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Every team has its own way of doing things. Whether you're an office of coworkers, a group of volunteer activists or a creative crew working together on a project, there must be some sort of order to the way things are run. This includes how decisions are made and how problems are solved. A big decision every group of cooperating people working together has to make is, well, how they're going to make decisions in the future. 

What's the policy for how ideas become decisions and then become policies or initiatives? Chances are, each group you're part of handles things a little differently. The most common decision-making practices include some sort of voting, with the option with the most votes being followed through with 

Consensus decision making is a little different. A more collective approach to group dynamics, a consensus allows for all perspectives in the group to be heard and accounted for. It's definitely not for everyone, but is it the right system for your team? 

What does consensus decision making mean?

Consensus decision making is exactly what it sounds like: a process of making decisions that requires reaching a consensus, or agreement between all parties. That means everyone in the group has to be on board with a decision in order for it to be carried out. It requires a certain level of compromise, and a lot of re-negotiation, in order to ensure that all stances and perspectives are incorporated into the final product. However, it's a more creative and egalitarian way of doing things, and it can be a creative and productive process that transforms your group dynamic.

What’s the difference between consensus and majority?

Majority decision-making processes are most common. This describes a process of voting on an issue and going with the option that the most people agree with. All other options are vetoed. We're all familiar with the "majority rules" standard, and chances are we've all been on both sides — the majority and minority — at some point in our lives. And as much as we know how good it feels to be in the majority and have your ideas heard and executed, we're just as familiar with how frustrating it can be to be in the minority and have your ideas left out and shut down. 

On the other hand, consensus decision making takes these minority stances into account to re-formulate the solution to a problem. Instead of just going with a majority idea as-is, there are compromises and concessions made on the part of all parties so that every person agrees — or can at least live with — the final result. 

Advantages of consensus decision making

  • Often leads to innovation and creativity
  • Legitimizes minority perspectives
  • Keeps hierarchy and bureaucracy in check

Consensus decision making has a lot of benefits. For one, as mentioned earlier, it makes for a more creative process, one that gives way to greater levels of innovation. If different perspectives have a say in something, the process for reaching a consensus is going to take more factors into consideration and come up with more informed, out-of-the-box solutions. Reaching a consensus also protects and legitimizes minority perspectives. Even if only a few people represent a minority opinion, each of those people counts as part of the group, and actions the group takes should reflect their ideas accordingly. 

In contrast to a system where only majority belief systems are given power — think the dominantly bipartisan government of the U.S. — consider consensus decision making as closer to the representative governmental structure of The Netherlands, where many different parties are afforded representation in the government proportionally according to how many votes they receive, even if they are a small minority. 

In this way, consensus decision making keeps hierarchy and bureaucracy in check, ensuring no one person's ideas are allowed to dominate the discussion. If there is a hierarchy within your team, and some people hold power over others, consensus decision making breaks down these barriers and tells all workers that their input is equally valid. Reaching a consensus ensures your actions, policies and procedures are truly representative of your company, because they take into account every individual that makes up the company. This is good for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the pride and dedication on the part of your employees when they get to be a part of a company that values them. It also creates a clear company culture that enhances your mission and values. 

Disadvantages of consensus decision making

  • Often time-consuming and tedious
  • Ambiguity about the final say and who's in charge
  • Not the best method for menial or time-sensitive decisions

Consensus decision-making can be a rather long process. If you're reworking and workshopping solutions to make sure everyone is in agreement, you'll be spending a lot more time on each task than if you went with a simple majority voting system. This is one of the main disadvantages of the consensus model. Sometimes, you simply don't have the time. Maybe the issue is topical, and has a tight deadline. It also might be a case of priority. If a decision is rather menial or fairly inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, going through an entire group compromise process might seem unnecessary. 

Another disadvantage is the ambiguity of authority when it comes to having the final say in a decision. When has a compromise been met? Who dictates what is enough of a consensus, or if there's a situation where a full consensus is not reachable. Since consensus decision-making is often accompanied by a less hierarchical power system, the question of who is in charge can be difficult to navigate. 

So, is consensus decision making for your team? You may find yourself in a group that prides itself on inclusion, equity and lateral leadership. In this case, a consensus model may fit right into your culture. However, if you're part of a company that relies on a more hierarchical approach to leadership, it's probably not for you. It all depends on your needs, what you're trying to accomplish and the values you want to uphold.

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