In my last post, Avoid the “GM Nod” in Your Meetings, I introduced five different ways to reach a decision in a meeting.  I also explained how leaders may not achieve effective decisions because they either fail to choose a specific approach or they fail to communicate their desired approach and act consistently to implement it. In this post, I want to explain more about one approach, perhaps one of the more familiar but least understood methods of group decision-making: consensus.

On various occasions I have recommended that leaders consider consensus as appropriate for meeting decisions.  My recommendation is sometimes met with skepticism.  One person said they had never seen a true consensus decision.  At best, they had seen something that looked like consensus because no one chose to speak up.  On other occasions, consensus was seen to become a way to go along with the boss.  In spite of such problems, I know consensus can be used successfully in even very difficult decision situations.  And, consensus is a very powerful means of building alignment and commitment to follow through on a decision.  Success in using consensus is determined through a clear understanding of when and how to work with it.

Choosing to Use Consensus 

Choosing consensus means that the desired decision is intended to be one that everyone specifically supports. No consensus, no decision.  It also means that the leader is giving up any personal prerogative or “extra” vote in the matter and specifically delegating the decision to the whole group. What is less clear and often not explained is that true consensus also means that each participant has a responsibility to share his/her views whether or not they support the direction of the rest of the group. Making it safe for individuals to dissent in the face of what may feel like group pressure is a critical part of achieving true consensus.  For a frank and open exchange of ideas, it may also be necessary to manage differences in status or authority that can cause some to be quiet or others to have a bigger share of the decision.

Making Consensus Work

To make consensus work well, I recommend that leaders begin by making sure that everyone is clear on what consensus really means.  People can hold some different “impressions” of the nature of a consensus decision so I find it is helpful to spend a few minutes at the beginning of the discussion clarifying how it will work this time.  Specifically, I recommend that the leader explain to participants that:

  • Everyone’s opinion is valued and of equal weight.
  • Different points of view will be respected and recorded as part of the meeting’s work.
  • If the group gets stuck on reaching consensus, we will try to separate those aspects of the decision where there is consensus from those where there isn’t.  Areas that not everyone can agree upon will be set aside and noted as “not yet agreed,” while work continues on the areas of agreement[i].

I have been in a number of meetings where this approach to consensus has been effective, even with potentially contentious decision situations. One of these meetings involved helping a manufacturing plant team to agree on how to change their operations to make them more efficient, safer and more environmentally responsible.  As the meeting drew to a close, there were many points of agreement, but one point drew very different opinions: the need for additional warehouse space.  Since it was not acceptable to all, this subject was put aside while the group continued to work on the areas that could receive general support.  There were other areas that not all could support too, and the senior manager present sometimes saw his ideas, just like some of those from his employees, get put on the “not yet agreed” list.  In the end, they had a list of 10-15 items that all could agree on as essential areas for improvement.  Work began the next day.  And the change made significant, measurable progress in the first 30 days.  This case has been described in greater detail in The Handbook of Large Group Methods.[ii]  There is also a case study of this plant’s effort and a copy of the article Creating a World Class Manufacturer in Record Time. at   www.BrownfieldandLent.com.

What’s Next

In coming posts I will continue to explore the use of various approaches to meeting decisions.  I will also look at comparative strengths and weaknesses of these different options.


[i] This is sometimes referred to as the common ground approach to consensus.  It is based in the assumption that in any given situation, people meeting together will agree on 80% of some issue.  It is the remaining 20% that causes them to get stuck and fail to reach consensus, or to “cave in” to group pressure.  Respectfully acknowledging, but setting aside areas of disagreement also keeps the group from spending its time and energy trying to resolve some “sticking point” and missing the chance to work from the areas of agreement.

[ii] Edited by Barbara Bunker and Billie Alban, Jossey Bass, 2006.

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