In Defense of Consensus

Published: Jan 24, 2019

Think about some of the high-stakes, high-complexity decisions facing your organization. These are the tough decisions that will likely determine the future success of your organization. They may even define your leadership legacy. Perhaps your instinct is to make these decisions on your own after seeking counsel from a small circle of advisors. After all, you have been taught that leadership is about making the hard calls and then rolling out a plan that will create the desired change, right?

But what if change does not come from persuasion, planning, or pressure? What if change happens as a result of people being personally committed to a decision or direction that they have helped to shape? And what if that kind of change requires a decision-making process that places authority not just in your hands but in the hands of the people who have the greatest stake in the decision?

Mobilizing Real Change with Consensus
In 1997 Mitsubishi Motors was a fragmented company with an unclear brand identity, disappointing product quality and an adversarial relationship with dealers. The company had lost $350 million over ten years in North America and the Japanese parent company was seriously considering pulling out of America. Pierre Gagnon, the newly appointed president recruited from Saturn Motors, formed twelve change teams to tackle the critical areas of the business from product quality to brand development. He knew he needed to fully leverage the talents of the best and brightest in the organization while gaining their buy-in so that decisions could be executed quickly. He chose consensus as the decision method for all twelve change teams.

As Pierre describes the process, “It was amazing to see the process work: by putting the right people in the room to have the right conversations and to go beyond agreeing—to actually commit together.” Under Gagnon’s inclusive style of leadership, Mitsubishi Motors’ North American operations subsequently flourished with five consecutive record years of profits, increasing revenue by 94 %, and establishing all time sales and market share records. In the process, the company built a culture of unprecedented collaboration among what had historically been competing factions.

What is consensus?
At its core, consensus is a cooperative process in which all group members develop and agree to support a decision that is in the best interest of the whole. Consensus has been reached when every person involved in the decision can say: “I believe that this is the best decision we can arrive at for the organization at this time and I will support its implementation.” It is a decision-making method that has been used by a wide range of successful organizations, including Saturn Motors, the U.S. Army, and Levi Strauss & Company.

Like any decision-making method, consensus is based on a number of important beliefs. Before using consensus, you must ask yourself and group members, “Are these beliefs consistent with who we are or who we aspire to be as an organization?” The four beliefs that guide consensus are:

Cooperative search for solutions. Consensus is a collaborative search for common ground solutions—not a competition to see whose position will be adopted. In most deliberations people guard their position as “the only right way.” In consensus participants allow their ideas to be shaped and improved by the whole group.

Disagreement as a positive force. In consensus, respectful disagreement is actively encouraged. In fact, participants are expected to express different perspectives, criticize ideas, and voice legitimate concerns in order to strengthen a proposal.

Every voice matters. Consensus seeks to balance power differences. Because consensus decisions require the support of every group member, individuals have a great deal of influence over the final outcome, regardless of their formal title or authority in the group.

Decisions in the interest of the group. With influence comes responsibility. In consensus, decision makers agree to put aside their personal preferences to support the group’s purpose, values and goals. Individual concerns, preferences, and values can and should enter into the discourse but in the end, the decision must serve the whole.

Common Misconceptions

Like many democratic workplace methods, consensus has been misunderstood and therefore misused and underused—particularly in the world of business. Let’s examine and clear up five common misconceptions about consensus.

Misconception #1: Consensus takes too much time. In considering the issue of speed, be sure to ask yourself whether you actually need to decide quickly or implement quickly. Fast decisions made by individuals or through majority voting often result in slower implementation due to resistance or unanticipated consequences. Many leaders who use consensus would say, “Whatever time we lose during our decision-making phase, we gain in the implementation phase.” There is no denying that consensus can take more time than other decision processes but it does not need to be a burdensome process. With practice, a well-planned process and skillful facilitation groups can move toward consensus decisions relatively quickly.

Misconception #2: Our solutions will become watered down. One concern about consensus is that resulting decisions are mediocre or uninspired because they have become watered down by compromises necessary to secure full group member support. An effective consensus process does not compromise on what’s important. It seeks to find solutions that fully achieve the group’s criteria and goals while at the same time, addressing individual members’ concerns. Consensus uses disagreement to tap into innovative approaches that might otherwise be overlooked if minority perspectives were never seriously considered.

Misconception #3: People with personal agendas will hijack the process. In any group process there is a possibility that a dysfunctional member or outside agitator may derail the decision process. Preestablished ground rules, strong facilitation, and a clear distinction between legitimate and nonlegitimate “blocks” of a decision are essential to prevent this from happening.

Misconception #4: Managers and formal leaders will lose their authority. Managers are often concerned that agreeing to a consensus process means they are giving up their ability to influence the final decision. They wonder, “Am I abdicating my role as a leader if I use consensus?” In consensus formal leaders are equal members of the decision group. They, like any other member, can stop a proposal if they do not feel comfortable with the solution.

Misconception #5: People are not accountable when decisions have “shared ownership.” The concern is that group-based decisions diffuse accountability. However, no group member is anonymous or invisible in consensus—quite the contrary. True consensus requires every participant to publicly proclaim not just his or her agreement with a proposal but full commitment to support the decision’s implementation.

In the past, a more inclusive way of leading and making decisions was a philosophical choice. Today, it is a business imperative. In every corner of organizational life, collective decision making has become the rule rather than the exception. Consensus has become a more and more common approach to decision making in organizations. As you move toward more inclusive leadership, consensus is one of those strategic tools that you will want to have in your repertoire.