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August 2013

How Does Consensus Really Work?

By Victoria Ruttenberg, management consultant, mediator, and former attorney

Many groups say they reach decisions by consensus. But here’s what I’ve seen:

Groups where one or two people dominate the conversation For a while, a couple of other people push back and disagree. But when it is time to make a final decision, everyone caves and adopts the loud people’s position. Then they all go out in the hall and complain about the loud people.


Groups where everyone has lots of conversation about what they want to see happen
Then their boss weighs in with his or her thoughts, at which point all other thoughts fall off the table and everyone agrees with the boss’ idea. Then they all go out in the hall and complain about their boss.

Groups where there are robust conversations, a lot of energy, and many ideas up on flip charts When it comes time to decide what to do with the ideas, the room instantly drains of energy, and the ideas are tabled until some later unspecified date. Then they all go out in the hall and complain that nothing ever gets done.

What’s going on here?

According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, “consensus” means “general agreement, unanimity; the judgment arrived at by most of those concerned; group solidarity in sentiment and belief.”

My theory is that people have confused the term “consensus” with “friendly.” Since people often want to be perceived as good-natured and easy to get along with, they opt for a decision-making process that they think will involve the least amount of strife and will indicate “solidarity in sentiment and belief.”

Making decisions by consensus is actually an involved process that can require taking a difficult, and at times lonely, stance. Only groups and organizations that consciously follow a coherent process actually decide anything by consensus.

The key component of consensus is that everyone’s position is listened to and discussed. However, while the consensus-based decision-making method requires that everyone be treated with respect, conversations can still become very heated. It can be particularly difficult if you hold an opinion that you think is very important for the group’s well being, but the group does not share your opinion. In that situation, you have an obligation to clearly state and argue for your point of view — and to know when to let it go.

Unanimity is not actually required. What is required is that people agree that they will accept and abide by a decision, even if it is not their preferred decision.

Excerpted with permission from the Ruttenberg Consulting newsletter.

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