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Consensus—What It Is And When To Achieve It

by Kevin Eikenberry

Making decisions by consensus is sound policy for any group when they are trying to cement the commitment to a decision or course of action. But the meaning of consensus is widely misunderstood; it doesn't mean majority vote, and neither does it mean compromise.

Tom was working hard to change the culture in his organization. He wanted to create greater collaboration, teamwork and empowerment.

He envisioned an organization where people loved coming to work each day. He knew that when these things were a part of working life that productivity would sky rocket, and greater business results would flow naturally from this new culture.

Since he really wanted people to have more ownership in their work and results, he felt he needed to drive more decisions through consensus. He reasoned that if he or other leaders made all the decisions, he'd never achieve the culture he hoped for.

So after he explained that consensus was his goal for most decisions, people tried to reach it. They had longer meetings, more discussion, some frustration, and limited success. They seldom seemed to be reaching the nirvana that consensus was supposed to be.

A bit disillusioned, Tom tried to learn more about consensus and how to achieve it. Here is what he learned...

What Consensus Is

The dictionary defines consensus as: agreement in the judgment or opinion reached by a group as a whole. This definition is why we all aspire to reaching it—it sounds good and we know that if we reach it there will be high levels of commitment to the decision made by the group.

But as Tom had learned, while it is a worthy goal, it is sometimes hard to reach. One of the reasons it is hard is that people don't have a clear definition of it—one that makes the concept more real than a dictionary definition.

Consensus is reached when everyone involved can honestly make the following 3 statements:

"I believe that you understand my point of view."

"I believe that I understand your point of view."

"Whether or not I prefer this decision, I will support it because it was reached openly and fairly."

The two most important words in the statements above are understanding and support. Decisions that are truly reached by consensus are decisions that all parties understand—both the background and the rationale—and therefore can and will support.

Remember too that support is more than just agreeing in the meeting. Support means actively supporting the decision back in the workplace and always being a proponent for it.

What Consensus Isn't

While a consensus decision may be a compromise in some ways, it isn't negotiated from the perspective of two sides negotiating to get their way. It also isn't a majority vote. Voting may be a step that helps a group move towards consensus, and there are times when a majority vote is an appropriate decision-making approach—just don't call it a consensus.

Sometimes, unfortunately, you don't know how complete your consensus is right away. If people backtrack or undermine the decision through their words or actions, it is proof that true consensus wasn't reached.

When Do We Go For It?

Consensus decision making is a powerful tool for any group when they are trying to cement the commitment to a decision or course of action. When the stakes of a decision are high, or a high level of commitment is needed from every involved person, then the time required to reach a consensus is a worthwhile investment.

There are many decisions and situations that don't require that level of commitment or buy-in. There are many times when team members are happy to have input but will support whatever course of action is selected. In this large percentage of situations, investing the time to reach consensus is not necessary and may actually be counter-productive.

So like any other tool it has its place. There are times when you want to build true consensus and other times when your effort and time could be better spent in other ways.

When you recognize this fact you've taken the most important step towards using consensus decision making most effectively.

There is much more that can be said and written about consensus and consensus decision-making. But all of this conversation should come after you have a true understanding of what it is, and when it is appropriate to achieve it.

Copyright © 2006 Kevin Eikenberry and The Kevin Eikenberry Group. All Rights Reserved.

Kevin Eikenberry is the President of The Kevin Eikenberry Group, a learning consulting company that helps its clients reach their potential through a variety of training, consulting and speaking services. Contact Kevin toll-free at: 888.LEARNER or e-mail to:


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