Coming to a decision through consensus: the pros and cons

Groups can utilize many different methods of decision-making: consensus building is one of them. Explore the positives and negatives of this common form of decision-making.

Parliamentary Procedure is a fair, effective and efficient way to run a business meeting, but it isn’t the only way to make decisions in a group. Although parliamentary procedure provides one linear, structured approach to decision-making, it has its limitations in some group settings.  An alternative to this is the commonly used consensus form of decision-making.

So what is consensus decision-making?  According to the Michigan State University Extension publication, Helping You Help Officers and Committees, consensus decision-making means having the group come to an agreement, without voting.  It is a process that allows all club members to have control over decisions that affect them and it encourages each member to share ideas with the whole group.  When the group is ready to make a decision, the emphasis in this form of decision-making is that everyone agrees on a solution. 

This is in contrast with the methods outlined in parliamentary procedure, which relies on an individual idea in the form of a motion.  Often consensus building is viewed as a way to make a decision that allows for everyone to feel it is acceptable and that all members can take responsibility for the decision, as opposed to feeling like one side is winning. 

When a group decides to utilize the consensus decision-making process, the following six steps are utilized:  

  1. Define or explain the problem that needs a decision.
  2. Give everyone a chance to suggest solutions to the issue.  Consider facilitation methods like brainstorming, round robin, or sticky wall. 
  3. Discuss the suggestions. 
  4. Decide on the best solution to the issue.  Everyone does not have to agree that it is the best solution but everyone should agree to accept the solution and help make it work. 
  5. Put the decision into action.
  6. After the decision has been tried, evaluate it. 

Consensus decision-making is often best used when a group is having a difficult time solving a problem or reaching a decision, or when working with a particularly small and cohesive group. Much like parliamentary procedure, consensus building also has limitations.  Consensus decision-making is not as effective when someone in the group blocks the process by promoting their own ideas and is not open to the ideas of others, when the discussion moves off the topic, or if the group has little time or patience to complete the process.  

For further information on running a meeting, contact the MSU Extension Leadership Civic Engagement Work Team to do a training with your group on parliamentary procedure, facilitation and consensus decision-making techniques.

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