Consensus Decision Making

Posted on May 15 2009

Consensus Decision Making is a technique often used when making decisions as a group. It describes the methods the group will use to make decisions. It is one of the most participatory decision making methods. See this article on consensus building. Effective teams work towards the fullest participation of each member, so many teams often use some version of a consensus decision making model. When used appropriately, this model of decision-making can maximize the quality of a team’s decisions by building consensus


There are a number of possible models for consensus decision making; each of these models may be appropriate for particular types of decisions.

See information on Consensus Decision Making Principles

The Team leader decides and informs the team – this may be appropriate for time-sensitive decisions or for decisions where the team is likely to support and implement the decision regardless of whether or not they’ve given input. The team leader may decide to cancel a particular team meeting because key participants cannot attend.

The Team leader gathers input from team and then decides — this model may be helpful where expert opinion or input is needed from the team to make the best decision. The synergy of team discussion may lead to a more comprehensive decision, but the team itself doesn’t need to come to agreement about the particular course of action. For example, the team leader may have a good discussion with the team about how they view the team’s needs, but the team leader writes the final position description for membership on the team.

Consensus Decisions

The word consensus is often thought to mean unanimous agreement but this is not always the case. Consensus is achieved when everyone on the team has had ample opportunity to have his or her ideas considered and can fully support the team’s decision. Consensus decision making means that the entire team has come to agreement on a course of action, even if individuals might have a different preference.

Consensus decisions often lead to completely new solutions that the team arrives at in the course of its discussion. Consensus decisions include input from and acceptance by each member of the team. Consensus decisions have a very high level of team involvement and can lead to strong, well-supported decisions.

A great example is coming to consensus about the success criteria that a team will use to evaluate its progress on a particular project.

See this Site dedicated to consensus building

In the course of the discussion leading to consensus, individual team members may change their ideas (based on new information or perspectives from their team) or they may decide to defer their individual feelings or needs to those of the team. The key point is that the process is deliberate and fully voluntary on the part of the team member.

Positive reasons why individuals might modify their position to support a team’s decision include:

— Agreement with most parts of the proposed decision — A decision to let go of a non-crucial element of their point of view in order to strengthen team alignment on the topic — Understanding that the final decision does not compromise team values — An assessment that the final decision has the best chance for successful implementation because so many members of the team support it Reaching consensus can take time, although consensus decision making gets easier with practice. Teams using a consensus decision making model will need to develop good meeting procedures to make sure that every individual has an opportunity to participate in the decision-making process. The ability to define the decision topic clearly, and the ability to build agreements and sensitivity to the team’s process will all help successful decision making by consensus.

Another method for group consensus decision making, might be consensus including fallback: This decision-making model may be the most effective way to implement consensus decision making because it pre-sets a course of action to be taken if the team is unable to reach a decision within an appropriate amount of time. The time allocated for a particular decision will depend on the decision’s complexity, importance and the difficulty of implementation. The preferred backup might may be to the team leader, who considers the team’s input and then decides.

The existence of a fallback plan keeps the team moving forward without ignoring input from team members. In one case, a group may have a lengthy discussion about the team’s motto, the team leader observes that there is still considerable disagreement among team members. If the previously decided that the team lead is the tie-breaker, the leader goes to their fallback. The leader will take all of their input and make the decision. The team agrees to this. The Team leader sets constraints and delegates decisions to team members – once team members know about any critical constraints, a team leader can delegate a decision to the team or a sub-group of the team. This decision-making model helps teams share the responsibility for decisions, can help the team and individual members develop decision-making skills, and allows the team leader to use his/her time in another way. A team leader gives a subgroup the authority to develop a marketing campaign, given pricing and style constraints. Some teams might also use a “majority rules” voting method for some decisions. While this method is familiar to most of us, on important decisions it can leave some team members feeling like they have “lost.” Majority vote can be an effective decision-making model for low-impact decisions, but it doesn’t work as well for high value decisions or decisions where active buy-in is crucial.

At a minimum, it would be important to have thoughtful and inclusive discussion prior to any major “majority rules” decision-making. It is important that the team pay attention to group process so that no team member changes his or her mind because they fear repercussions for disagreement, or they are somehow “bullied” by the team (through hostile remarks or “friendly teasing”) into changing their views. Team members can check for consensus by seeing if each member of the team can agree to the use of these statements:

— I’ve heard your positions — I believe you’ve heard my position — The decision does not compromise my values — I can fully support the proposed decision and its implementation.

In good consensus decision making, every member of the team must feel that they have been listened to and that their ideas have been given a fair assessment.

See this thread discussion on Consensus Decision Making

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