How Consensus Decision-Making Creates Shared Direction in a Team

In a previous post I called attention to “consent” as the root of “consensus” (as well as the basis for participation in any group).

What some people love and others hate about the process of consensus decision-making is that it requires participants to seek every group member’s sincere consent to move forward.

In fact, my definition of consensus is 100% agreement to move forward together.

So, why is consensus important?

  1. I measure team building by energy and direction. Without consensus, a group has no shared direction. Without consensus, people literally work at cross-purposes (and cancel out each other’s efforts) instead of amplifying each other’s efforts.
  2. When groups pursue a direction decided by majority or authority, those who dissent (either vocally or silently) display low energy. They lose their commitment.
  3. Remember the effect of low commitment on teams: the principle of the least-invested co-worker guarantees that when low commitment is present, it will always be more infectious than high commitment. The majority may “win” but the “losers” drain needed energy away from the “win.”

So, the real value of consensus decision-making is that it creates shared direction and high energy in a team. And isn’t that what we join groups to get?

5-Minute Practice Tip

To start becoming an expert consensus-builder, create a consensus continuum (in your head or on paper) similar to the one below. Then, when you’re in a group — any group — and attempting to decide a direction, when someone proposes a solution, immediately take a quick poll of each individual in the group.

Ask each person to rank his/her position as:

  1. Unqualified: Yes. Move forward.
  2. Perfectly acceptable. Move forward.
  3. I can live with the decision of the group. Move forward.
  4. I trust the group and will not block this decision but need to register my disagreement. Move forward.
  5. I feel no sense of unity as a group and think more work is needed before deciding. Stay put.
  6. I do not agree and feel the need to stand in the way of adopting this decision. Stay put.

The point of this practice is warm inclusion of dissenters. Inclusion gives dissenters a louder voice, instead of quelling them. The normal — and harmful — group dynamic is for the majority to beat-up the minority until they withdraw, which the majority then defines as consent.

To activate more team building when there’s a difference of opinion on a team, silence the majority and ask dissenters, “How can we change this proposal so it works for you?” Then listen.

Often dissenters solve their own “opposition” simply by being heard.

Start your practice on less-than-critical decisions. The key to consensus-building is steering away from “right versus wrong” arguments. (Use “Works for me,” or “Doesn’t work for me,” instead.)

And, above all, keep asking the group, “What could move us forward together?”

Leave a comment and tell me what you think.

Christopher Avery, PhD, is a recognized authority on how individual and shared responsibility works in the mind and an advisor to leaders worldwide. Build a responsible team (or family) and master your leadership skills with The Leadership Gift Program for Leaders.

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9 Responses to How Consensus Decision-Making Creates Shared Direction in a Team

  1. Great article Christopher–thank you for sharing. We use something called “The Fist of Five” when making many decisions (most notably committing to the contents of an Agile Sprint Plan) where the team throws a number of fingers up roughly corresponding (in reverse order to your post) to their level of comfort with the proposed decision. 5 fingers means they are in complete agreement–absolutely no reservations. 1 finger means that they will in no way support the decision. It’s a great collaborative tool for getting that criticial team buy-in!

    • Christopher says:

      Hi Matt, Fist of Five is a great process. You are right, it is popular in agile development teams. I know it is taught by Rally Software’s agile coaches quite a bit but I’m not sure if they originated it. Here’s a blog post from Rally’s CTO Zach Nies where he refers to the fist of five.

      The larger concept is called “decision gradient” which means to poll people on a range of responses from absolutely to absolutely not as a way to start a discussion and sharing of perspectives. Jim Highsmith writes about this in his agile project management books. For years, I’ve taught a simple decision gradient using thumbs up, thumbs down, or thumbs sideways.

      The value is in getting a quick poll of a group on a proposal where you want them aligned and then give voice to the discenters (1’s and 2’s, or thumbs down) and ask them how the proposal could be modified to suit them.

  2. I enjoyed the article. I am going to share with my kids. It is just as important for families as for business groups.

  3. Evan Leonard says:

    Consensus is great, just not for every decision. You don’t want to have to get everyone’s 100% agreement to buy an extra box of pencils for the supply closet. But then, how do you decide when to use consensus and when to just delegate the decision to a single person? That’s the more interesting question to me. Holacracy provides the best answer that I’ve found.
    Here’s a blog post from the Holacracy site about this:

    • Christopher says:

      Hi Evan, thanks for bringing up both the point, and Holacracy. On the first, I teach clients to engage in “Yours, Mine, Ours” conversations or negotiations as early as possible in their operations together. Why? To clarify which decisions are individuals to make and which call for unity or consensus.

      To do this we first clarify roles, relationships, and accountabilities. Then we list a representative set of decisions that will likely be made. Then we sort each into a bucket: Yours, Mine, Ours (or Manager’s, Tom’s, George’s, Susan’s, Ours).

      The process leads to a lot of shared clarity about alignment, priorities, assumptions, and decision risks.

      And about Holacracy, what I understand about it I think is truly excellent. I’ve been a fan of such holistic-collaborative systems for a long time and am happy that this framework is becoming popular. I think the Leadership Gift and Holacracy are probably soul mates and could do a lot of good things together.

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