Imagine that the discussion on a motion has finished and the Board Chair calls the question. “Who’s in favor?” Some hands go up, some don’t. Some seem to mumble assent. You aren’t sure if this is a vote or if it’s an expression of consensus. It appears to be somewhere in between, but no one seems to have objected so you guess it passed. People did seem to agree with the motion during the discussion. Anyway, the Chair has moved on to the next item. The experienced board members understand what it all means. You’re new, but you assume that you will catch on to the system with time.
Boards, management teams and other groups making decisions have two choices in how to approach the making of decisions – consensus or majority vote. That assumes, of course, that the leader of the group (or a small faction within the group) doesn’t force a personal agenda upon the group, pretending that the group has made a decision freely.
Consensus occurs when the majority agrees on a certain course of action and everyone else in the group is willing to proceed for the sake of the group, even though some may not have chosen that course of action and would prefer another. Consensus does not occur if even one member of the group is unwilling to proceed with a decision that he/she cannot support.
Consensus can be perfect, strong, medium or weak depending on the number of members of the group who agree personally with the course of action the majority wishes to follow.
A perfect consensus occurs when everyone in the group is unanimous in the decision. This perfect consensus is sometimes erroneously thought to be the only form of consensus. But consensus can occur without unanimity.
A strong consensus occurs when 75% or more of the group agrees and the rest are willing to proceed with the decision.
A medium consensus occurs when 50-75% of the group agrees and the rest are willing to proceed.
A weak consensus can occur when there is a plurality of viewpoints but where no group has more than 50% of the support. If the group is still determined to decide by consensus, the majority may be willing to proceed with a minority who forms the one of the groups within the plurality of viewpoints.
Consensus offers several distinct advantages over deciding by majority vote. First, there is much more involvement in and therefore ownership of the decision.
Second, it is easy to “test” the consensus with an unofficial poll or “straw vote” to see if consensus has been reached. If not, the group continues the discussion until the poll indicates that consensus has been reached or that consensus is not possible.
Third, everyone in the group wins. Since consensus is a matter of freedom of expression, no one is forced to proceed to against his/her will. There are no “losers” when there is no coercion, blatant or subtle.
In one management team, the CEO, using the Relationship Model, gave the team the freedom to make all management decision within clearly defined limits. One of the limitations was that all the team’s decisions must be made by consensus. If consensus was not possible, the decision automatically defaulted to the CEO. This leader reported that in four years, the team has never failed to reach consensus. Imagine that.
Boards may also use consensus for the same benefits of involvement and ownership. The Relationship Model would lean towards this form of decision making by any group. The difference between management teams and boards is that if the board cannot reach consensus, the decision cannot default to a stronger authority. In this case the Board has no alternative but to revert to a vote where the majority required for the decision will determine the outcome. Normally, Board members are expected to support the decisions of the Board, but the sense of ownership may be lost in the process.
Consensus increases unity and commitment within a group, but the process of reaching consensus within a group must be clearly understood and agreed by the entire group before the process begins.
Les Stahlke, President