When to use Consensus for decision making

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Consensus decision making pays for itself when it delivers robust decisions backed by everyone in a group.

Business decision makers have a wide range of decision-making processes to choose from. Both the speed and the quality of decisions can be affected by the decision-making process.

The choice of how a decision will be arrived at should take into account the issue and the people involved in an effort to minimize the cost and maximize the quality of the decision. But many businesspeople automatically make decisions in whatever way they feel most comfortable, or simply perpetuate the ways in which decisions have been made before, without looking at the fit between the decision and the decision-making style.

Consensus is frequently discussed but often misunderstood as a decision-making style. For example, some leaders will assume that team members’ silence after hearing a proposal shows their consensus, where the truth may be they are simply reluctant to express their doubts.

Strictly speaking, a consensus requires the unanimous consent, or approval, of everyone participating in the decision. Partly because each participant has veto power over the decision, participation in a consensus decision-making process gives each participant a strong sense of joint responsibility for the process and the decision. Every participant receives both motive and opportunity to give their blood for the cause.

While the word “consensus” has a touchy-feely sound to some people, in practice it is no more and no less than a specialized wrench for the well-equipped business toolbox. To clarify the value of consensus decision making it helps to compare consensus to command, delegation, and democratic decision-making styles in terms of advantages, disadvantages, and how responsibility for a decision is distributed.

Centralized decision making (“command”). Probably the most familiar and, in recent years, most criticized decision-making style is centralized or “command” decision making, where a leader is directly responsible for every decision within a certain sphere of control. This style can have the advantage of enabling quick, coordinated action, particularly when a deadline is imminent. Its disadvantages can include depriving subordinates of the responsibility, learning, innovation, and personal rewards of making decisions themselves. It can also result in inefficiency or even bottlenecks at times if review and reconsideration are needed before subordinates will take action.

Distributed decision making (“delegation”). For decades now mainstream business thinking has emphasized letting go of the simplicity and familiarity of the command style in order to obtain the benefits of distributed decision making. In contrast to command, a challenging and critically important function of “high-delegation” leaders is to serve as facilitators of decisions made by their team members while resisting the temptation to reconsider and re-issue decisions themselves.

Delegation offers efficiency by reducing the number of people required for each decision, while maximizing ownership of consequences by the individuals who receive decision-making responsibility, boosting their motivation, focus, production quality, and follow-through. However, while delegation serves to distribute decisions across a number of people or groups, the act of delegation does not by itself offer an effective process for allowing a group of people to collaborate in making a single decision.

Majority vote decision making (“democratic”). Consensus is frequently confused with “democratic” or “majority vote” decision making, which it resembles to a certain extent. A majority vote is useful for bringing large numbers of people in on a single decision with minimal cost. It can also set the stage for debate between people who have strong views about a decision, particularly for people with comparable power in a group. Finally, a democratic process results in a decision every time a vote is taken (assuming a tie-breaker process is in place).

Democratic decision making has important strengths in a business setting–for example, when involving large numbers of people such as shareholder groups in a decision. It also has weaknesses. For starters, up to 49% of participants can still wind up being “losers” even though they were included in the decision-making process. This outcome is less than ideal when an organization is counting on everyone to implement a decision enthusiastically. In addition, a vote may be slanted by apathy, inadequate information, or the influence of authority figures who express compelling opinions. Even when discussions do take place before voting, many members of a group may choose to keep important questions, concerns, or alternatives to themselves.

Consensus decision making. Because a consensus decision is preconditioned on participation by everyone in a group, it maximizes “buy-in” and effort from group members during decision making and execution. By the same token, when things don’t go exactly according to plan consensus fosters a sense of goodwill that increases patience, adaptability, and willingness to participate in damage control. The consensus process also encourages discussion of potential obstacles already known to participants, allowing work-arounds to be built into a decision in advance.

Consensus can be very efficient from a cost per decision standpoint. When everyone in a group already has compatible views concerning a proposal, consensus can produce a rapid decision with little or no time spent on a wind up and pitch beforehand. As a project moves forward, leaders can ask for consensus input from teams to discover quickly what kind of support they have and make adjustments if necessary before things go very far off course. In addition, if participants represent groups, consensus can be scaled to larger numbers of people without equivalent costs.

Compared to delegation or command, consensus could take longer or dilute responsibility for follow-through. Other disadvantages of consensus might include taking the time to listen to those whose views don’t conform to mainstream expectations. In addition, it’s possible that a consensus process won’t result in consensus support for any specific course of action, and thus no action will be chosen, which could frustrate someone who wants immediate action.

The following examples demonstrate when consensus might or might not be appropriate. For a mid-sized company, firm-wide consensus would be a poor choice of decision-making style for redesigning the company logo if that project could be better and more cheaply decided by delegating it to one person or a small group of people with appropriate backgrounds. But to redesign an office floor plan for more effective and collaborative use of group space, consensus would be an excellent decision-making style because it solicits the best ideas and the most enthusiastic long-term involvement of everyone who will be using the space.

For any group where harmonious cooperation on many levels and unity on major decisions is essential, consensus decision making can be invaluable. For example, in small business partnerships partners can ill afford to harbor serious reservations or discord over important decisions. Thus, where one partner is leaning towards letting an employee go while another partner could go either way, using a consensus process can help both partners quickly lay out and review options, arrive at a joint decision, and feel supported, respected, and trusted by one another moving forward.

Tool summary: When to use consensus for decision making.

Use the command style for decision making when decisions are needed very quickly, as in a crisis, and one person will be able to make decisions effectively.

Use delegation to increase efficiency and maximize the contribution of every team member.

Use a majority vote to include a large number of people at relatively low cost.

Use consensus when you want high quality input and commitment, with follow-through, from a group.