Consensus Decision Making

Consensus is a decision-making technique that uses all of the resources and the participation of an entire group. That could be a group of managers, or it could be a group of workers. Consensus always requires more time to make the decision than a simple managerial decision. It also is not a democratic vote.

Consensus involves compromise by the group making the decision. Not everyone can always get everything he or she wants. Often, your role as a manager is to mediate and moderate the process to an effective conclusion: the decision.

More often than not, consensus will require the participants to negotiate an acceptable solution that requires trade-offs. Not everyone will get what he or she wants. What you are looking for is a final product that everyone can live with, which actually achieves your goal. The result is a reasonable decision that everyone in the group can accept.

Of course, deciding when consensus decision making is appropriate is the key to using this mechanism best.

Consensus decision making is best used when there is a clearly identifiable group or team to make the decision. The boundaries of the group need to be clear, such as a normal work team with a clearly established membership and common goals and objectives, or a management team that routinely meets to collaborate—not an ad hoc group of people just brought together, which just ends up being consultation.

The situation needs to be right as well. Never use consensus for personal actions. That’s a manager’s job, pure and simple. Never use consensus for determining equipment purchases, product development decisions, budget decisions, or similar situations.

Consensus decision making is best when the team members, or participants, have a real stake in the process or the outcome, or both: a work team deciding how most effectively to achieve a goal or objective; a management team deciding how best to integrate new processes or procedures that affect everyone; or a group of workers deciding how best to change a process to increase efficiency.

All of these are good situations for consensus decision making. Remember, however, that the manager’s role is to facilitate this process.

Studies and experience have demonstrated time and time again that consensus decisions are almost always the best and highest quality decisions; they often produce the best outcomes.

This is based on what we know about people’s behaviors and motivations. If they are involved in the decision process, they are invested in its result. Behaviorally, they recognize they are at least partly responsible for the success of the decision’s outcome.

People work harder and more energetically to execute an idea or decision they had a role in making, and this almost always results in significantly improved outcomes.

Use consensus decision making when you have plenty of time to create the decision, and when you have a clearly identifiable and cohesive group of people to participate in the process. Use consensus decision making when quality is more important than time. Quite frankly, this should be most of the time.

So when do you not use consensus decision making?

An authoritarian decision is appropriate under some circumstances where consensus is either not possible or not practical. This sounds negative, but it doesn’t have to be. An authoritarian decision is one made by someone with the “authority” to make the decision.

There are two primary factors that may dictate whether or not an authoritative decision is appropriate: time and politics.

When time is of the essence, an authoritarian decision is best made. Getting groups together, discussing the process, and arriving at a consensus decision takes time—time you don’t always have. If you are in a crisis or an emergency, don’t go for a consensus decision, make one yourself.

Organization politics can sometimes be a barrier to a good or practical decision. Not every organization is a smoothly running machine. Sometimes internal divisions are significant and divisive. If it is likely that internal groups will polarize around specific positions and be unbending, then it becomes almost impossible to obtain a good consensus decision. So, when the internal organizational politics of the situation indicate many different and widely divergent factions will preclude a quality decision, use authoritarian style.