Can’t We All Just Get Along? Some Tips for Building Consensus

Consensus is a collaborative, participatory style of decision-making that offers an alternative to top-down or majority rule approaches. Its results often lead to more effective implementation, stronger group relationships, and greater interpersonal connections.

Consensus is both a process and an outcome. It means that the leader and team members listen to each other and try to formulate a proposal that combines many people’s ideas and is agreeable to all.  Consensus means that members are sufficiently in favor of a decision that no one will become an obstacle to carrying it out. It does not mean that everyone gets his or her choice or that there is  unanimous agreement about a best solution. Consensus exists once there is a solution everyone can accept even if they favored another outcome.

A leader should seek consensus when the team needs to agree on a specific decision or plan of action so that it can move forward. If there is ambiguity about the proper course or disagreement about what people should be doing, reaching consensus can provide clarity and a share understanding of what is expected.  Consensus is most important when team members’ support and ownership of ideas is necessary for them to be implemented. Achieving consensus helps guide team members toward creating that support and ownership.

Reaching consensus takes time, so when there is urgency it is more effective to provide direction to the team and then offer support so each member can follow that course successfully. If the issue concerns something that others expect the leader to decide, seeking consensus can undermine the leader’s credibility and authority.  When team members do not have the necessary expertise or full information to make an effective decision, seeking consensus may result in a poor decision. If the only way to reach consensus is to opt for a compromise the leader cannot accept, then the attempt at consensus should be abandoned.

A leader can facilitate a group discussion toward consensus in the following ways:

  1. Presenting a position logically and provide information to support it.
  2. Considering other positions carefully before pressing his or her point.
  3. Acknowledging other positions that have objective and logical bases.
  4. Exploring reasons for differences of opinion.
  5. Looking at alternatives.
  6. Distinguishing between objective data and gut-level feelings about an issue.
  7. Polling the group to gauge the level of agreement, but not to achieve a majority-rules outcome.

Conversely, actions such as the following can discourage participation and make consensus difficult to reach:

  1. Arguing for your position without any justification; it lacks credibility and persuasive power.
  2. Arguing automatically for your own personal priorities; it suggests a lack of interest in other information and perspectives.
  3. Changing your mind just to avoid conflict; it may result in lack of commitment to decision or a sub-optimal outcome.
  4. Assume that stalemate reflects a win-lose situation; alternatives that satisfy the group just have not yet be identified.


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