Group Decision-Making by Consensus: Let’s Discuss It

By John Butcher

This article was published as "Consensus Depends on the Situation" in Group…Association of Facilitators, Number 4, spring 2002.

Parents of the students of a large public school are meeting on whether to recommend to the School Board that uniforms be mandatory. A mixed business-labour-government group is trying to identify approaches to manage a multi-billion dollar injured worker insurance program. A Cabinet is assessing whether evidence of global warming is sufficiently clear to require further government restrictions on vehicle emissions. The members of a small religious congregation are selecting local community projects to receive its donations next year. A large, geographically- and culturally-diffuse professional association is devising a code of ethics and values to guide its members’ behaviour.

Each group needs to make a decision. But how will it know when it has? When “50% + 1” vote in favour? When there is “general agreement”? When everyone can “live with” a particular decision? When there is “complete support” by each person in the group?

The typical facilitator response would be to assist the group to establish its own standard for its decisions, based on whatever criteria the group feels are appropriate to the circumstances. Most facilitators and many authors (e.g. Bens 2000; Kaner et al 1996; Reddy 1994; Rees 1991) take this “situational” approach. It means that norms and “ground rules” are generated from within the group (not set by the facilitator). While the facilitator may advise the group on the implications of different decision-making models, in the end the group picks the one it feels is most appropriate to its short- and long-term needs. The facilitator must still ensure that the group is absolutely clear in what it means by whatever model it chooses (“So how would we know a decision that we could all live with if it walked in the door?”), but otherwise leaves the model up to the group.

Such a “situational” approach is consistent with the most common tenets of facilitation that:

  • eschew single models;
  • work to ensure the highest-possible group ownership both of outcomes and of the processes used to achieve those outcomes;
  • respect different organizational and group cultures and vocabularies;
  • support an atmosphere in which all participants feel free to express their views on the issue at hand;
  • ensure that the group is always clear in what it says and means; and,
  • maintain the facilitator’s role of supporting the group’s thinking, rather than becoming an advocate for a particular line of thought.

However, some facilitators and authors argue that “consensus” is typically the most appropriate - and always the most desirable - approach to decision making. Roger Schwarz expresses this view succinctly in The Skilled Facilitator (Jossey-Bass 1994, page 24):

“The core value of internal commitment implies that groups are more effective when they make decisions by consensus (unanimous agreement).”

He later elaborates on this idea (pages 83-84):

“Consensus means that everyone in the group freely agrees with the decision and will support it. If even one person cannot agree with a proposed decision, the group does not have a consensus. Consensus ensures that each member’s choices will be free choices and that each will be internally committed to the choices.”

As a skilled facilitator himself, Schwarz recognizes that there are situations in which consensus is not necessary. However, he prefers consensus because he feels it increases the quality of and commitment to the group’s outcomes, enhances members’ ability to work together, and more fully satisfies each group member’s interests. This is not to say that consensus decision-making guarantees that everyone is absolutely happy with the group’s decision, but that all members will support it. It is more than “grudging acceptance”, but may be less than “euphoric embrace”. Consensus is preferred on the solid, practical grounds of group performance and member commitment. Facilitators are therefore encouraged to ensure that groups seriously consider consensus as their decision-making model - even to the extent of making it a “ground rule” (i.e. an approach the group always assumes to be in place and uses automatically, unless it explicitly decides to change it).

In the best of circumstances, consensus certainly feels like the best approach. This is especially true when it roots itself in the argument that effective implementation of a decision depends on buy-in both to the decision itself and to the process used to reach that decision. Good “content” might otherwise be rejected because of faulty “process”.

However, in the daily realities of group work, the consensus model may not be able to deliver all of its potential benefits. And the “consensus as ground rule” approach can, in fact, undermine what it is meant to achieve.

One concern with approaches other than consensus focuses on the “tyranny of the majority”. Dissenters can be bullied into publicly agreeing with a decision they do not and will not support. It is assumed that the consensus approach, combined with standard facilitator interventions, can protect dissenters and help the group find an “integrative decision” (Schwarz, page 168) that is more likely to be effectively implemented.

Unfortunately, in practice, the facilitator cannot guarantee with certainty the protection of dissenters, whatever the decision rule. The facilitator leaves, the dissenter stays. “C’mon Bill, we have to get going: everyone else is on side” is a powerful message, regardless how it is delivered. If the dissenter acquiesces, the facilitator has little option but to accept the agreement at face value. The facilitator who tries to prolong the discussion risks entering content, making life even more difficult for the dissenter, and appearing to oppose a group that is ready to move on.

Nor, in practice, is implementation necessarily jeopardized by lack of consensus. Many reluctant conscripts have fought bravely. Many unhappy organizational people are nonetheless “good soldiers”. People don’t necessarily have to “whistle while they work” to be effective.

The consensus approach also opens the possibility of the “dictatorship of dissent”. If there must be “unanimous agreement” to move forward, then any one member of the group has a veto. Even if the group has agreed in advance that explanations must be provided to back up dissent, who judges the validity of those explanations - the group, the dissenter, the facilitator? Even if the explanations are not persuasive to the rest of the group’s members, the group cannot move forward. The consensus as unanimity approach must accept the validity of the veto, or fail to respect one of its own tenets - that the group does not proceed unless everyone agrees.

A facilitator may struggle to convince a group to include an individual whose views are not welcome, but which are critical if the group is to achieve the best possible outcomes. If the ground rule is always consensus (“unanimous agreement”), then a group may well resist inclusion of people it sees as troublesome or holding divergent views, regardless how useful they might be. The risk in setting consensus as a ground rule thus becomes, ironically, more “group think” as groups recruit like-minded participants rather than court deadlock. Skilled facilitators can certainly help groups think through their divergence, but not all groups know or believe this. Besides, there are no guarantees.

As well, even groups that insist on consensus, and use broad participation, can still enter “in-think”. All that effort expended to reach consensus can make a group resistant to any change. Participants bond to their decision and reject alternative outside perspectives that may emerge, or go into denial if the decision turns out to be one that cannot be well implemented. Effective organizations often encourage healthy dissent and are alarmed when everyone seems to be in agreement. They see dissenters as valuable resources and reality checks, and encourage constant questioning and skepticism (Horibe, in press).

Finally, the ultimate question around consensus must be: “What does it take to decide whether unanimity will be the decision-making model? Can a majority decide that it has to be unanimous?” This is not a frivolous concern. Most groups would, for all of the reasons Schwarz and others advance, prefer to use consensus, especially for very important decisions. But many groups fear that this ground rule may deadlock them at some point in their deliberations. Once consensus has been agreed to as the decision-making standard, it surely requires unanimous agreement to change it. Fearing the dictatorship of dissent, or simply an inability to move forward despite an overwhelming (but not unanimous) desire to do so, many groups choose to avoid explicitly adopting the consensus model, preferring a more situational approach that may or may not include consensus.

So, instead of promoting consensus as a ground rule at the beginning of a group’s deliberations, the prudent facilitator may prefer to let the group do some thinking and see how much “general agreement” emerges. Then the discussion can be held around how much agreement is required to ensure buy-in and effective implementation. At that point, if there is still divergence, the group may decide to keep working to achieve unanimity. Or it may “agree to disagree”, and let the decision go forward when a significant majority of participants supports it and wishes to see it implemented. Legitimate time and resource pressures may also be present. In many cases, it is much more appropriate and effective in the short and long terms to respect both the dissenters and the significant majority by accepting that differences exist and by recognizing the group’s right and ability to decide whether to move forward.

Consensus may be desirable, but it is certainly not essential for a group to make durable decisions that can be fully implemented. Making consensus a ground rule for group decisions is unnecessary and may inhibit a group from doing good work. It may create “false closure” by pressuring participants to publicly agree when it may be equally effective if a dissenter can say: “I expressed my concerns and they heard me, but the general view was to move forward. Because I respected the significant majority of the group in its wishes, I can still have influence as this decision is implemented.”

They may be bromides or truisms, but “The perfect is often the enemy of the good” and “Half a loaf is better than none.” Facilitators are always wise to keep these in mind when they are thinking about encouraging a group to use “consensus” to the exclusion of “general agreement” or “something we can all live with”. They should also remember that groups and organizations are dynamic, changing organisms as their members evolve in their own thinking and experience. Groups and organizations do learn. They can revisit decisions and change how they do things next time.

In over 12 years as a self-employed facilitator working primarily with multi-stakeholder groups (usually including business and labour), I have never worked with a group that decided it required “unanimous agreement” for its decisions, or that even discussed such a proposition at any length. What I have found is that group members insist on the opportunity to persuade others to their points of view, but not on the right to veto what the group might decide. Part of my role as facilitator is to ensure that the opportunity to persuade is respected, that the group is absolutely clear on the ground rules it does wish to use, that the group itself owns any agreement it reaches, and that the group fully explores how it will implement its agreement (including overcoming potential barriers).

The group that chooses consensus (especially as a ground rule) accepts both benefits and risks. It may find that its decisions are more durable (if sometimes harder to reach). But it may also expose itself to unnecessary obstruction, delay, “group think”, and the choking off of the ongoing benefits of dissent, while jeopardizing its very ability to reach some form of agreement and move forward. Consensus is indeed double-edged. In the end, it is one of several equally-effective situational approaches to decision making - all of which can, in their place, help a group to produce high-quality and durable results.