Michael F. Broom, Ph.D.
Excerpted from his book The Infinite Organization
Consensus decision-making has the reputation of being very time-consuming. It needn’t be if the steps outlined below are followed. The failure of most supposed consensus procedures result from failing to ask those objecting if they are willing to accede to the proposition work even though they are not in full agreement with it.
Groups make decisions in several ways: Authority-based decision-making is used in many organizations where the ranking organizational manager decides after hearing the group’s discussion of the issues. A variation of the authority-based decision occurs when two or three outspoken group members decide by agreeing among themselves and not being challenged by other group members. Consensus-based decisions are established through collective (but not unanimous) agreement. Many groups attempt consensus before defaulting back to authority-based decision-making. That default occurs when the attempt at consensus turns into an attempt at unanimity. That need not happen!
Many studies have documented consensus-based decision-making as the process which gives the highest quality decisions. The quality of consensus-based decision-making is high because it best collects and synthesizes the wisdom and knowledge of the group’s individual members. Consensus-based decision-making also contributes to groups being safe, conflict competent, and well-informed. Why not use a decision-making process consistent with the reason for groups to exist in the first place? Reiterating, the reasons for using a group are:
- The size and complexity of most organizational goals can be accomplished only by several people crossing functional areas working in concert.
- A level of effectiveness and creativity is needed that can come only from synthesizing differences.
- There are several stakeholders invested in the decision.
Consensus-based decision-making is most likely to produce desired results. It also supports effective and efficient implementation if the group is constituted. People readily support and implement what they have invented. When those responsible for making a decision are together with those will implement the decision—these are the “invested stakeholders” of item 3 above—successful implementation is virtually guaranteed.
If consensus-based decision-making is so effective at creating high-quality decisions, why do so many organizational managers default to less effective decision-making processes? Consensus-based decision-making has the reputation of being frustrating and very time-consuming. I have seen countless groups work at consensus-based decision-making only to screw up on the sixth of seven steps. The steps are:
- Generate and explore a range of proposals regarding the issue at hand. Be sure that everyonehas the opportunity to be heard.
- When a substantial percentage of the group seem to be leaning toward a particular proposal, it is time to check for consensus.If you’d like to test whether the group is leaning toward a particular proposal, ask for a quick show of hands. If most of the hands go up, you’re on target. If you’re not go back to step 1.
- Check to be sure that everyone understands the proposal the same way.This will save a lot of time. It is very frustrating to discover just as you’re about to finish the process that there are very different ideas floating around about the proposal’s meaning.
- Check with each person whether they are in favor of the proposed decision.Do not allow further dialogue during this step unless questions of clarity arise.
- Ask each person notin favor to state the reasons for their opposition.It is very important that those not in agreement feel that have been heard and their thoughts considered. As often as not that is all any person not in agreement may want. Allow for dialogue that is focused on understanding the person’s concern. Often the concern will turn out to be a misunderstanding. Often the concern, once understand, leads to a valuable modification or addition to the proposed decision.
- If the person’s concern was not resolved, ask if s/he is willing to proactivelyhelp make the proposition work even though they are not in full agreement with it.This is where many organizational leaders allow their consensus-building process to fall apart. They simply do not ask: “Are you willing to proactively help make this idea work even though you are not in full agreement with it?” The answer most often given to this question is, “Of course” or some variant thereof.When the question is not asked, the group will quickly get stuck trying to convince the person to change their mind. This gets frustrating. Trying to convince someone to change their mind with no new information or point of view being offered is futile. What was a consensus-building process has become an attempt at a unanimous decision. The perception, that consensus-based decision-making is frustrating and time consuming, is in error. The error comes from having what was a consensus-based decision-making process become a unanimous decision-making process. The latter is frustrating and time consuming.
- If a person feels strongly enough about their objection to be unwilling to support the proposed decision after steps 5 and 6 have been followed, the point being made may be important enough to warrant further exploration. In my 40 years of working with teams and groups in organizations, this has never happened.More often than not, the problem lies with the group not understanding the objecting person’s point. Once clarified, the objection is often used to modify or add to the proposed decision as in step 5. Less often, further exploration leads to a better understanding by the person objecting.
Consensus decision-making can be quick and easy if you stick with the process described! And, you’ll have better decisions that meet less resistance when it comes time to implement!
Learn more about creating great teams and organizations. Sign-up for my new online program “Creating Great teams and Organizations Intensive” starting Septemer 7. It’s based on the highly successful Triple Impact Intensive that Edie Seashore and I ran for 16 years. The Center for Human Systems is offering significant discount for initial pilot program. Click to check it out at chumans.com/intensive or email me at email@example.com.
Michael is an organizational psychologist with 40 years of experience with all kinds of people and organizations. He is the author of The Infinite Organization, and Power, The Infinite Game (with Donald Klein), and the upcoming The Dragon Principles. Formerly of Johns Hopkins University, he founded the Center for Human Systems and is a Lifetime Achievement Award honoree of the OD Network.
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