Organisations use many different methods of decision making, each rooted in their own operating culture. Some profess to operate out of a consensus mode of decision making. ‘Consensus,’ however, is one of the most misunderstood concepts. Many believe that consensus means that every person around the table has to agree to a decision.
I learned about consensus while I was working in rural communities many years ago. During that period, I used to attend several community meetings. The meetings were held at night, after all finished their work and often involved only the men. There were some villages, where women and the youth also participated. At these meetings, there would be passionate discussions, angry exchanges and open dialogue on an issue that would be affecting the community. Then in some of the meetings the elder of the community would stand and articulate the consensus. He would be silent through most of the discussions, yet would clearly articulate what needs to be done next, such a way that there would be no further argument whether it is the right thing to do! I used to admire their ability to do so. Of course there were many “elders” who were not as skilled at this as some others.
Observing these meetings, I learned that consensus is not equal to a majority opinion. It is not always what everyone agrees with. It is also not the most popular thing to do or the voice of the most influential. It is also not a reflection of the loudest voice, for that matter.
So, what is consensus?
Consensus is the most responsible ‘response, be it an action, a decision, or a direction carried out in the best interest of the organisation. It is what contributes most to the agreed upon purpose or the objective. It is the articulation of what is required, keeping in mind the given situation, core values, vision, and the organization’s priorities at any given point of time.
Consensus is truly seeking what is good for the organization and what is good for its common future. True consensus transcends any one particular view or thinking.
Consensus is the most effective way of decision making, as it creates greater sense of ownership and commitment within the organization. When a consensus is articulated, there is a “collective aha” and a release of energy propelling everyone forward. People become more open to giving their best and work collaboratively towards common goals.
Contrary to common perception, it is not necessary to seek everyone’s opinion or put an idea to a vote, to arrive at a consensus. In fact voting only gives a majority opinion and not the consensus! Voting often divides people as majority vs minority, consensus on the other hand binds them together.
Prerequisites for consensus based decision making:
Several organisations desire to create an environment of trust and collaboration, a culture of high performance and innovation. Consensus mode of operation is at the heart of such a culture. But operating out of a consensus paradigm can be a challenge, and has some important prerequisites.
1. Open Dialogue:
Open dialogue is foundational for consensus. An open dialogue encourages all the people to present their views, without the assumptions of right and wrong. In open dialogue every view is received equally. For an open dialogue to take place there needs to be a forum where the decision makers meet as equals. I feel, management team meetings are a great place to start operating out of consensus. It can provide a forum to practice the disciplines of building consensus. The meetings then can become demonstrations of consensus based decision making. And this can happen only when organisations break away from the traditional models of power and authority where often one view, “my view” dominates. Cultures which do not encourage open dialogue, block the channels of consensus.
2. Mature leadership
To demonstrate that the management team is operating out of consensus, requires the presence of mature leaders who are equipped with the mindsets and the skills to facilitate such a process. Besides the tools and techniques of facilitation, most importantly, it calls forth setting aside personal agendas and deep rooted assumptions. It involves listening and making oneself open to others views and perspectives. Reading and stating the emerging consensus, however is not just the prerogative of the senior most in the management team. Any one person, or a small group, can state the consensus on behalf of all, as long as they are truly in touch with the being of the organisation and are able to read the “common mind”. The ability to state consensus is all about deep listening and being attuned to the energy and the spirit of the dialogue, than merely paying attention to the words and sounds of the conversation.
3. Clear and consistent communication
Consensus makes sense when the rational for the decision and the alignment of that decision with the larger goals of the organisation, is communicated to all the participants in a clear and consistent manner. Within true consensus situations, there is transparency and free flow of information. A common mind is built, when everyone is both aware and identifies with the deeper purpose and the vision of the organisation. When true consensus is stated and communicated, we can all feel it as the right thing do. We experience a sense of connectedness to that action or decision. And for some reason, when we do not agree with a consensus, and if we are true to ourselves, we will discover that we dislike a particular decision only because it does not meet our personal situation or interest.
Consensus approach is not for every situation. It is most effective, when varied and complex views and perspectives are required to be taken into account to make a more informed decision. Where situations are “straight forward” and decisions are “black and white”, other forms of decision making might be more useful.
Consensus way of operating is a higher order of functioning. When consensus mode takes root in an organisation, the benefits are immense. There is a greater sense of alignment and ownership across the organisation. But before these and other benefits can be harvested, systemic cultivation of a conducive culture is essential.