Consensus is not voting by majority rule

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This comes as a surprise to those of you who are accustomed to voting and then, if more people are for the proposal than against, declaring “consensus.”

If the vote is very close, say 51% to 49%, the only conclusion that one can reach is that almost as many were against the proposal as for it. This situation is a sign of deep polarization, not widespread agreement.

Even if the margin of “victory” is higher, say 80% of the votes cast, the result tells us nothing about how committed those who voted in favor are to implementing the decision.

Finally, reaching consensus does not necessarily mean 100% unanimity. This decision-making rule offers a more nuanced set of options than simply being “for” or “against” a proposal.

More importantly, before the decision is taken, the process calls for participants to both advocate for their preferred solutions and listen attentively to the concerns of those who have different perspectives and then make a good faith effort to resolve those differences.

If you find these ideas intriguing or challenging, you can learn more in my recently published book, Introduction to Consensus.

Let´s keep striving to find ways to make decisions that move us toward the world we want to live in.

Need help clarifying the difference between making decisions by consensus and voting? Contact us to schedule a free consultation to discuss your coaching or training needs.

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2 Comments
  1. Many non-profits I work with claim they make decisions using consensus… “unless we can’t agree and need to move on, then we vote.”

    I highlight that they are not really making decisions by consensus–they are using majority rule and should clarify that in any decision-making policies and procedures.

    A consensus decision indicates the group is collectively willing to move forward on a particular decision (even if some might not think it is the best decision, they are willing to live with it).

    But if even one person in the group is adamantly opposed to the decision and can’t live with it, this means consensus can’t be reached and the group can table the decision for the time being or continue to talk to come up with another approach that everyone can live with (sometimes the opposition will end up agreeing to live with the earlier proposal, as long as they feel truly heard).

    In other words, a group using consensus sticks to that model for the hard decisions, not just the easy ones; how a group makes its tough decisions points to the decision-making model they really use.

    One group I worked with found an in-between model they felt more comfortable with. If TWO or more people couldn’t live with the decision, the decision wouldn’t pass. This helped avoid situations where one renegade board member could keep blocking decisions.

    Another group said they would strive for consensus but allowed the Chair to intervene and call for a vote, based on criteria the group outlined beforehand. This was then included in their decision-making procedures so it was clear what their model was.

    And this is what is most important: clarify and agree on your decision-making processes BEFORE facing a tough decision as the last thing you want to do is try to decide how you make decisions in the middle of a conflict.

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