Engaging with the Public: A series of best practice tip sheets
How can we benefit from consensus decision-making?
Tip: Involve others and increase commitment
If groups want high-quality decisions with strong support for follow through, and they are willing to invest time to create a proposal or plan, they will benefit from consensus decision-making. Involving all group members in the discussion of issues and making decisions together is a powerful process.
Consensus decision-making has a rich history dating back to early Native American societies, as well as the Quaker tradition. The consensus process has also been used within political movements, nonprofit organizations, intentional communities, and worker cooperatives. Recently, consensus decision-making is being embraced by government entities and corporations, such as Mitsubishi, Levi Strauss & Co., and Starbucks.
Work teams become more engaged and committed to implementation when they have the opportunity to create their own goals, projects, or action plans. Creating consensus generally requires a common purpose, an understanding of consensus and a skilled facilitator. In this tip sheet, we answer the questions:
What is consensus decision-making?
What are its benefits?
Definition of consensus decision-making
Consensus is a cooperative process in which all group members develop and agree to support a decision in the best interest of the whole. In consensus, the input of every participant is carefully considered and there is a good faith effort to address all legitimate concerns. (Dressler, 2006)
Arietta and Wallace (2000) define consensus as "a journey and a destination." As a process, consensus is the means by which groups can productively resolve issues, make choices or develop strategies. As a product, consensus represents a resolution—a decision that satisfies all participants.
Consensus as a process: Often referred to as "consensus building," the process is a journey of preparing participants to make a decision. Discussion is needed to identify issues, clarify questions, establish decision-making criteria and address all concerns. The goal is to create understanding of the issues and then share the perspectives of all involved. Using a trained facilitator to plan the process and lead conversations to get to a decision is important.
Facilitators employ a number of strategies within the consensus process: Gaining buy-in from all members about the purpose or goal of the session; ensuring that every idea is acknowledged in writing and honored; linking thoughts together so that people can formulate a common idea; creating arenas of shared understanding; and naming categories of related ideas.
Consensus as a product: Consensus is the outcome of a consensus-building process. After listening to all perspectives, participants develop a proposal that honors the wisdom of the group. When people think and talk together, they can find a solution or proposal to move forward as a group. A consensus decision does not mean that everyone agrees on all the details or that some have changed their ideas or perspectives. Ideally, a consensus decision reflects mutual understanding, agreement to support a decision, and commitment to take action steps for the benefit of the group.
Benefits of consensus decision-making
- Inclusive participation engages and empowers the group;
- Requires a commitment to work together and increases cooperation;
- Creates shared understanding through discussion that bridges differences;
- Equalizes the distribution of power in a group;
- Can create better decisions that are more representative of the larger community;
- Creates more ownership and commitment; and
- Results in more effective implementation because the entire group takes action on the project or plan.
Choose consensus when…
- There are many stakeholders and perspectives for a complex problem.
- People are willing to participate.
- The group has authority to make decisions and will be affected by them.
- Creative solutions are needed.
- You need everyone involved to be committed to the decision or plan.
Choose alternatives when…
- There is no common goal or purpose.
- There is an unwillingness to participate or cooperate.
- Group has low trust or a lack of commitment.
- Time is limited or there is an emergency.
- Needed information is not available.
- People are polarized on issues or values.
- The problem has a clear solution.
Consensus decision-making is a process that builds trust and creates ownership and commitment. An effective consensus process (consensus-building) is inclusive and engages all participants. Consensus decisions can lead to better quality outcomes that empower the group or community to move forward to create their future together.
Arietta, D. L., & Wallace, L. (2000). Consensus building fieldbook. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Extension and Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.
Bressen, T. (2007). Consensus decision making. In P. Holman, T. Devane & S. Cady (Eds.), The change handbook (2nd ed.).San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
Dressler, L. (2006) Consensus through conversation. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
Williams, R. B. (2007). More than 50 ways to build team consensus. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, Inc.
Tip sheet prepared by Rachel Hefte, Extension Educator, Leadership and Civic Engagement