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Consensus decision-making is a decision-making process that not only seeks the agreement of most participants, but also to resolve or mitigate the objections of the minority to achieve the most agreeable decision. Consensus is usually defined as meaning both: a) general agreement, and b) the process of getting to such agreement. Consensus decision-making is thus concerned primarily with that process.
Some people said that true consensus involves "meeting everyone’s needs." Consensus decision-making is intended to deemphasize the role of factions or parties and promote the expression of individual voices. The method also increases the likelihood of unforeseen or creative solutions by juxtaposing dissimilar ideas. Because it seeks to minimize objection, it is popular with voluntary organizations, wherein decisions are more likely to be carried out when they are most widely approved. Consensus methods are desirable when enforcement of the decision is unfeasible, such that every participant will be required to act on the decision independently.
Consensus decision-making is also found in groups where participants have different areas of expertise but are working toward a common goal. Examples of this include high technology project design teams which must integrate the opinions of people with different areas of expertise.
Minority views must be considered to a greater degree than in circumstances where a majority can take the action and enforce the decision without any further consultation with the minority voters. It is often thought that consensus can require more time and effort to achieve. Thus some groups may reserve consensus decision methods for particularly complex, risky or important decisions. However, there are many examples of groups who employ consensus decision-making in ways that enable them to both consider minority views and make decisions in a timely and efficient manner. These will be outlined in the section below on Examples of consensus decision-making.
Consensus decision making could result in group polarization, where team members make more extreme decisions compared to their prior individual positions (Isenberg, 1986). This could potentially have beneficial effects on team decisions (enhance commitment and conviction), or detrimental effects (escalate towards greater risk or greater conservative behaviors). Use of computer-mediated communication could further heighten the effects of group polarization (Sia et al., 2002).
Rather than simply list known alternatives, debate for a short time, vote, and then accept or reject by some percentage of majority (ex. over 50%, over 2/3), a consensus decision-making process involves identifying and addressing concerns, generating new alternatives, combining elements of multiple alternatives and checking that people understand a proposal or an argument.
This empowers minorities, those with objections that are hard to state quickly, and those who are less skilled in debate. Therefore, consensus decision-making can be seen as a form of grassroots democracy.
Egalitarian groups that seek to reduce the amount of power delegated to leaders, chairpersons or agenda setters often use consensus methods. Such methods can reduce the amount of harm or loss imposed on minorities (or individuals) by a majority. Consensus methods may be appropriate when personal (or emotional) risk to members is high, trust is low , and time is available for a prolonged discussion. Consensus may be used to remedy patterns of decision-making based on habit, subservience or carelessness.
Alternatively, it can be argued that in a situation of abundant trust - in which each party assumes that any objections or reservations regarding a proposal are meaningful - consensus methods may not only be appropriate, but necessary.
Like any group decision-making, consensus decision-making can disempower those not present in the debating forum, as they cannot expect to have input on the new measures that are proposed (whereas they might have had the opportunity for input into the known alternatives prior to the debate). Accordingly, most systems of consensus decision-making place a premium on participation.
Three key issues tend to define a particular type of consensus decision-making:
- degree of agreement or unanimity required;
- timing of presentation including division of time among urgent versus important matters;
- follow-up to action including the monitoring that arises from dissent, and from claims of majority proponents whose preferred course of action is being taken over minority objections.
There is also the question of facilitation or process leadership, which is handled separately at the end of this article.
If consensus is not unanimous, who must agree?Edit
A healthy consensus decision-making process usually encourages and outs dissent early, maximizing the chance of accommodating the views of all minorities. It also often assigns a role to the dissenter, e.g. the Vatican used to assign the role of Promotor Fidei to a specific priest who argued against beatification of a saint, to ensure the case 'against' remains well represented. After the decision, the dissenting minority may have some role to play in monitoring the decision. In the Supreme Court of the United States, both the majority opinion and minority opinion are equally well documented, as the legal grounds for agreeing with either may exist in some court in future.
Many groups consider unanimous decisions a sign of agreement, solidarity, and unity. However, there is evidence that unanimous decisions may be a sign of coercion, fear, undue persuasive power or eloquence, inability to comprehend alternatives, or plain impatience with the process of debate. When there are concerns about these aspects of unanimity, various alternatives can be pursued. These include the following:
- Unanimity minus one (or U-1), requires all delegates but one to support the decision. The individual dissenter cannot block the decision although they may be able to prolong debate (e.g. via a filibuster). The dissenter may be the ongoing monitor of the implications of the decision, and their opinion of the outcome of the decision may be solicited at some future time. Betting markets in particular rely on the input of such lone dissenters. A lone bettor against the odds profits when his or her prediction of the outcomes proves to be better than that of the majority. This disciplines the market's odds.
- Unanimity minus two (or U-2), does not permit two individual delegates to block a decision, but tends to curtail debate with a lone dissenter more quickly. Dissenting pairs can present alternate views of what is wrong with the decision under consideration. By focusing on a pair of dissenters, and allocating less time to lone wolves or 'consensus thugs', a U-2 system tends to form stronger bonds among those who find themselves "alone on an island" with each other. Pairs of delegates can be empowered to find the common ground that will enable them to convince a third, decision-blocking, voter to join them. If the pair are unable to convince a third party to join them within a set time, their arguments are deemed to be unconvincing, immature or self-interested. If two people dissent against some common measure, it is more likely that the discussion between them can be extended to third parties easily, since it is already verbalized and illustrated. Western European court systems recognize this by strongly encouraging criminal defendants or civil plaintiffs to get an attorney's aid, so that their case can be fully heard out long before the decision.
- Unanimity minus three, (or U-3), and other such systems recognize the ability of three or more delegates to actively block a decision. However, there is controversy over whether a small group of dissenters, (e.g., militants or terrorists), is morally different from a large minority, (e.g., an opposition party with support of double-digit percentages of the population). Accordingly U-3 and lesser degrees of unanimity are usually lumped in with statistical measures of agreement, such as: 80%, mean plus one sigma, two-thirds, or greater than half (majority) levels of agreement. Such measures do not fit within the definition of consensus given at the beginning of this article. (see also consensus-seeking decision-making)
- The IETF working group process has a tradition of "rough consensus", where there is no specific rule for "how much is enough", but it is left to the judgment of the working group chair. This makes it harder for a small number of disruptors to block a decision, but puts a lot of responsibility on the chair, and has frequently led to angry debates about whether rough consensus has in fact been correctly identified.
The quality of alternatives considered is, all else being equal, proportional to the amount of time spent gathering and comparing and combining them. The term deliberative democracy reflects the deliberation that underlies all good consensus decision-making. Ralph Nader and others have advocated deliberative measures to extend the time for "sober second thought."
A fictional example of deliberative democracy is the Entmoot from J. R. R. Tolkien's novel The Lord of the Rings. The Ents, who are large ancient living intelligent trees, spend days discussing the issue of whether to go to war, in their verbose and many-syllabled language. This is an example of a decision for which the stakes were high, the individual risk also high, and coercive force difficult or lacking; therefore suited to consensus methods.
Timeliness of decisions is an important issue. In some cases, a wrong decision taken in time can be better than a good decision taken later. Key responsibilities of facilitators of any decision making process, but particularly in consensus decision-making, include:
- Establishing measures to place items on the agenda, or deny them time on the agenda.
- Setting deadlines for changes to the agenda (e.g. can the agenda itself be changed during the meeting?).
- Agenda forming and presentation of issues at the right time, when there is sufficient time for their debate.
- Ensuring that less urgent issues are excluded from the debate, but dealt with at another time.
To achieve a balance between urgency and importance, it is common to reserve enough time for matters that are not urgent, but are nevertheless important, (for e.g., the decision process itself, which takes care to maintain). Consensus decision processes tend to accelerate as rising trust over the course of the meeting, combined with fatigue, increase individual tolerance and the cost of dissent. Placing difficult agenda items first tends to speed a meeting, with the risk that important, but less complex decisions will not be achieved before adjournment.
Decisions about when to split up into working groups, how to handle agendas, how to deal with changes to agendas or working groups from the floor, etc., are affected by the allocation of the group's time to urgent versus important matters. These procedural matters are held to be crucial to the survival of a consensus decision process, along with issues of safety, fairness, and closure which arise from their application in practice.
Action, monitoring and follow-upEdit
Action is the point of decision; without action, the decision is just talk. Military leaders from Alexander the Great to the present have emphasized that orders simply do not get carried out unless they are personally followed up by the commander. The same applies to group decisions, perhaps even more so.
One would not expect the opposing minority to do a good job of ensuring that a measure is carried out, but they can ensure that problems resulting from it are well-documented, and that inconveniences of its implementation are contained. However, they can also take steps to ensure that the inconvenience of implementation is maximized, so as to make the point that the measure was impractical and ill-advised from the beginning. A major issue in consensus decisions is whose view of the actual outcome to trust, and who to permit time to present their view.
Consensus decisions are especially vulnerable to sabotage of all kinds, so the assignment of action roles, monitoring (from the original majority and minority opinion to some future time when the results of both sets of predictions can be debated), and other follow up (e.g. assessing support of the public for a party after it has taken and publicized a particular measure), is a key responsibility of consensus decision leaders.
Aside from these abstract factors, one must consider the practical matter of the facilitation process. A hierarchical point of view is that leadership or management of the process (as opposed to leadership of a faction or party) is required.
The role of a facilitator in a consensus decision-making process can be much more difficult than that of a simple-majority-party leader if group members distrust each other or unconsciously use manipulative techniques. For a proponent of any given alternative, reducing objections to their plan by eliciting information or preferences from proponents of other alternatives is difficult if people distrust each other. Manipulative opponents can find it advantageous to misrepresent their concerns or refuse to negotiate - an analogous problem to that of strategic voting. For these reasons, consensus processes usually require trust among participants and skilled, patient facilitators able to synthesise the state of a proposal.
An argument against consensus decision is that few motivated facilitators are willing to assign themselves a role guiding processes rather than pursuing and promoting specific measures empowering themselves. Dee Hock said of his role at Visa International - an organisation focused on making profit - that it was something that anyone could do, but almost no one learned to do well, and which was largely thankless. Similar sentiments have been echoed by many "leaders" of organizations committed to peace, ecology, and social justice, which tend to have diffuse benefits, and concentrated costs (an instance of the tragedy of the commons issue in political economy, and of the public good problem).
However, leaderless organisations committed to peace, ecology, and social justice, where trust builds up and where different participants are encouraged to learn facilitation skills, find that consensus decision making is a practical and powerful tool. An example of a prominent organization that uses consensus-seeking decision-making is the Green Party.
Some organizations have abandoned consensus decision-making for simple majority, judging that the difficulty of building a process to formally weigh all of these factors is not worth it, and that these factors can be handled better informally (i.e. in offline discussions before and after debate) than through the process of consensus itself, at the risk of creating a de facto clique that makes the real decisions.
An important issue for groups to consider, before considering a consensus decision-making process, is the feasibility of building up sufficient trust among participants and the willingness of participants to learn facilitation skills, and whether or not these are compatible with the operational structure of the organisation. For example, an organisation with a President who hierarchically controls operations could only be compatible with consensus decision-making if the President could be expected to sincerely respect the consensus decision-making process.
It has been claimed that it would be intrinsically difficult for a competitive organisation to use consensus decision-making, since consensus is a cooperative process, not a competitive process. There does not seem to be consensus on whether or not an organization focused on competition with other organizations can be internally cooperative.
There are a number of criticisms of consensus decision-making. Some but not all of these amount to a different choice of values - for instance, the relative importance of protecting minorities from majorities, or keeping issues in active discussion when disagreement exists, regardless of how long this situation remains.
The consensus process can lead to a situation where a relatively small number of people, (a faction), can block action that is desired by the majority (see Minoritarianism). In this situation, the process is arguably non-democratic, as the will of the majority is being thwarted by a minority. Where such a dynamic exists, whatever state of affairs already exists in the organization becomes the default with the faction holding a veto over the will of the majority. In such cases an organization can find itself saddled with formal consensus long after a majority of members would gladly switch to another system, yet find it impossible to change because of a small faction's ability to repeatedly veto any move towards change.
Another often-cited problem is a result of the power of factions over the process. In effect, whatever group within the organization is least willing to accommodate the desires of the other groups ends up with a larger degree of power over the group. In effect, decision-making becomes a game of "chicken" where the group with the least investment in the positive outcome of the decision-making process can be the most intransigent, and thereby get its way the most often. The result is that those members who most want the group to make decisions and take positive action may end up compromising a great deal to accommodate a small intransigent group. (These individuals are sometimes called "consensus thugs".)
As a result of the previous two problems, organizations that use formal consensus have a tendency to reward individuals who are the least accommodating and punish those that are the most accommodating. The paradoxical result is, therefore, that formal consensus decision-making tends to attract the most stubborn and intransigent individuals and repels those who are most willing to negotiate compromise between different points of view.
Because of the above problems, formal consensus decision-making tends to take enormous amounts of time to come to decisions because the process often boils down to a dialogue between the majority and an intransigent minority where some sort of common ground can be found. This is directly related to one of the claimed benefits of consensus - that it protects minorities from the majority. Indeed, systems of formal consensus often only work in practise by developing systems of informal control that will allow the majority to limit the ability of individuals to thwart the will of the majority. In North American native groups that use consensus, for example, it is often the case that tribal elders are able to exert enormous informal pressure on individuals who tend to disrupt consensus. (This is often missed by outsiders.) In some organizations using formal consensus, there is an informal process where people who do not "toe the party line" on issues seen as key to the organization's identity or purpose are encouraged to leave.
Even if an individual is not told to leave because they are out of step with the majority, because of the problems listed above, formal consensus decision-making tends to exclude people from participating who have limited amounts of time and energy to devote to process. As a result, members may leave altogether, or stop taking part in the decision-making process and leave decision-making up to those individuals who have the time and energy, effectively producing an oligarchy which may not be controlled by formal democratic means. For these two reasons, critics claim that formal consensus tends to become an exclusive rather than an inclusive system. While similar claims have been made of representative democracies, citing instances of low voter turnout, critics of the consensus distinguish between the two. They contrast a consensus process with decision-making systems where people are encouraged to clearly state their opinions, vote, and then abide by the majority decision. According to this argument, formal consensus does not foster the two values of "agreeing to disagree" and "I got my say, so I'm ok with it".
A related claim is that consensus decision-making can lead to pathological group dynamics in which participants are discouraged from expressing dissenting views out of concern that this would break consensus. This can lead to a situation known as groupthink. In an extreme case, a majority or even the entirety of the group may believe a decision to be flawed, but no one is willing to express this idea because they are under the mistaken impression that everyone else in the group supports it, this point being the moral of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale about The Emperor's New Clothes.
Some critics argue for majority voting systems on the grounds that these help participants learn social skills which allow individuals with very different viewpoints to work together on a common cause, and disagree with advocates of consensus who make similar claims. They argue that formal consensus gives individuals the impression that everyone should always get their own way, and that there is no reason why anyone should feel obliged to "bury their differences". As a result, the system tends to perpetuate differences of opinion long past the point where an organization that makes decisions by voting would have decided the issue "old".
Similarly, those who hold minority points of view in formal consensus are socialized that they have a perfect right to dissent from the majority point of view, which some critics see as a serious problem, leading to minorities ignoring the will of the majority and instead "doing their own thing". They argue that this makes it extremely hard for large institutions to pursue difficult projects - or indeed to operate at all - if the decision-making process is based around consensus.
Finally, consensus decision-making can fail in situations where an issue is divisive enough so that consensus simply cannot be reached.
Examples of consensus decision-makingEdit
Decision-making arrived at by finding a "spiritual consensus," rather than voting, was developed by the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) early in the 17th century and is in use to the present day.
There has been considerable development in consensus decision-making recently. For example, Quaker-based consensus has been adapted to a variety of settings in recent years (for example, anarchist political groups). Also, various intentional communities have developed processes which they describe as both inclusive and effective. Three such approaches to consensus decision-making are outlined below:
The model used by the Quakers is said to be effective because it puts in place a simple structure that moves a group towards consensus. The Quaker model has been well-received when employed in secular settings because it gives everyone a chance to speak while limiting potential disruptors (e.g., people who want unlimited airtime, or who have a particular axe to grind).
The following aspects of the Quaker model can be effectively applied in any consensus decision-making process:
- Multiple concerns and information are shared until the sense of the group is clear.
- Discussion involves active listening and sharing of information.
- Norms limit number of times one asks to speak to ensure that each speaker is fully heard.
- Ideas and solutions belong to the group; no names are recorded.
- Differences are resolved by discussion. The facilitator ("clerk" or "convenor" in the Quaker model) identifies areas of agreement and names disagreements to push discussion deeper.
- The facilitator articulates the sense of the discussion, asks if there are other concerns, and proposes a minute of the decision.
- The group as a whole is responsible for the decision, and the decision belongs to the group.
- The facilitator can discern if one who is not uniting with the decision is acting without concern for the group or in selfish interest.
- Dissenters' perspectives are embraced.
A belief in common humanity and the ability to decide together are key components of Quaker-based consensus. The goal is "unity, not unanimity." Ensuring that group members speak only once until others are heard encourages a diversity of thought. The facilitator is understood as serving the group rather than acting as person-in-charge. By articulating the emerging consensus, members can be clear on the decision, and, as their views have been taken into account, will be likely to support it (see External links below for more information and materials related to Quaker-based consensus).
Use of colored cardsEdit
Many intentional communities use consensus decision-making. In many cases, with cohousing groups, business must be transacted within time constraints. Thus efficiency is important. If the group genuinely wants to make decisions by consensus, an effective method is needed. An open discussion needs to be animated by a process that moves towards a timely, and sound, decision that is supported by all. Various techniques have been developed whereby this can be achieved. One such method involves the use of color cards (green, yellow, red).
In some groups, the cards are used in two ways; one for discussion and another for decisions:
A group member who wishes to speak, holds up a card:
- A green card means "I have something to say" or "I have a question." When several group members hold up a green card, they are noted and placed in a "stack" of people waiting to speak. Each person speaks in turn, in a way that is similar to Quaker-based consensus.
- A yellow card means "I can clarify" or "I need clarification (on what was just said)."
- The red card is the process card. A red card, when raised, asks members to look at the process. For example, an individual who displays a red card might say: "Are we getting off track, here?" or "What is our objective in doing this?" or even "How about we take a break?" It gives all members an equal chance to be facilitator.
Following discussion, the facilitator articulates the proposal and calls for a show of cards:
- The green card means: "I agree."
- The yellow card means: "I can live with it." This is often referred to as "standing aside"
- The red card means: "I don't agree, but am willing to work to find a better way, taking into account what has been said by all group members." Thus holding up a red card does not block progress, it signifies that the person who displayed it will work with others on the matter in question and bring it back to a subsequent meeting. This tends to ensure that red cards are not used lightly.
If groups agree to apply methods such as these, and all group members are willing to work at it, consensus decision-making can be both effective in meeting a group's goals, and time-efficient.
Use of hand signalsEdit
In lieu of colored cards, some consensus-based groups use a system of simple hand signals. While the nature, meaning and popularity of such signals changes from group to group, there is a common 'vocabulary':
- Twinkle: Wiggling of the fingers of one or both hands, with palms facing downward. Used by non-speakers to indicate agreement with the speaker. Also often used as a replacement of a raised hand to indicate a 'yea' vote to a proposal.
- Triangle: Forming of a triangle with the thumbs and index fingers of both hands. Used to indicate a point of order or procedure to the facilitator.
- Crossed arms: Forearms crossed with hands in fists. Used to indicate a strong disagreement with the speaker or to cast a 'block' vote to a proposal.
The IETF Rough Consensus modelEdit
In the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), decisions are assumed to be taken by "rough consensus." The IETF has studiously refrained from defining a mechanical method for verifying such consensus, apparently in the belief that any such codification will lead to attempts to "game the system." Instead, a working group (WG) chair or BoF chair is supposed to "recognize it when I see it."
One tradition in support of rough consensus is the tradition of humming rather than (countable) hand-raising; this allows a WG to quickly tell the difference between "one or two objectors" or a "sharply divided community", without making it easy to slip into "majority rule". However, hand-raising is also used, especially in larger meetings, but actual counting is frowned upon.
Much of the business of the IETF is carried out on mailing lists, where all parties can speak their view at all times; the social dynamics of mailing lists is worthy of a study in itself.
- ↑ "In a multinational automotive firm, consensus-building processes helped people overcome the low level of trust that existed after massive layoffs." Monteze M. Snyder, with Cheryl Gibbs, Susan A. Hillmann, Trayce N. Peterson, Joanna Schofield, George H. Watson: "Building Consensus: Conflict and Unity", Chapter 1.
- ↑ "Even when an agreement cannot be reached, the improvement of relationships and trust between groups often makes the [consensus] process worthwhile." Heidi Burgess, Brad Sprangler "Consensus Building", Beyond Intractibility.org
- ↑ Adapted from Quaker Foundations of Leadership, 1999. A Comparison of Quaker-based Consensus and Robert's Rules of Order
- ↑ Canadian Cohousing Network "The Consensus Decision Process in Cohousing".
- ↑ The IETF working group practices are described in RFC 2418. "IETF Working Group Guidelines and Procedures."
- Bradner, S. "IETF Working Group Guidelines and Procedures", RFC 2418, September 1998. Retrieved: 2006-07-01.
- Butler, C.T.L. & A. Rothstein. 1987-2004. "On Conflict and Consensus: A Handbook on Formal Consensus Decisionmaking. Takoma Park, MD: Food Not Bombs Publishing. Retrieved: 2006-07-02.
- Isenberg, D.J. “Group Polarization: A Critical Review and Meta-Analysis,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1986, 50(6), pp. 1141-1151.
- The Canadian Cohousing Network. 2004. "The Consensus Decision Process in Cohousing." Retrieved: 2006-07-01
- Hock, D. "The Chaordic Principle"
- Quaker Foundations of Leadership, 1999. A Comparison of Quaker-based Consensus and Robert's Rules of Order. Richmond, Indiana: Earlham College. Retrieved: 2006-07-01.
- Sheeran, M. J., Beyond Majority Rule: Voteless decisions in the Religious Society of Friends (1983) ISBN 0941308049 (A Jesuit looks at lessons to be learned from the Quaker decision-making process).
- Sia, C. L., Tan, B. C. Y. and Wei, K. K. “Group Polarization and Computer-Mediated Communication: Effects of Communication Cues, Social Presence, and Anonymity,” Information Systems Research, 2002, 13(1), pp. 70-90.
- Beyond Consultation - Making Consensus Decisions — Clean Air Strategic Alliance (CASA) (PDF)
- The Collective Book
- Comparison of Robert's Rules of Order and Quaker-based Consensus
- Consensus: a colourful farewell to majority rule at the 9th World Council of Churches (WCC) Assembly gathered in Porto Alegre in February 2006
- Consensus as a communication method, not a principle
- Consensus Decision Making (Seeds for Change)
- Consensus is Not Unanimity: Making Decisions Co-operatively — starhawk.org; adapted from Randy Schutt
- Consensus method to overcome male dominance
- Formal Consensus (PDF)
- Formal Consensus - General (Food Not Bombs)
- Formal Consensus - Specific Methods (FNB)
- Kwasi Wiredu's Ethics of Consensus. An African Model
- Making Sense of Consensus - ACTivist Magazine
- Manual for Meetings in the Uniting Church in Australia (PDF)
- Materials on Consensus — Earlham College
- Meeting Facilitation: The No-Magic Method
- On Conflict and Consensus: a handbook on Formal Consensus decisionmaking
- Papers on Cooperative Decision Making and Consensus
- Participation in Unanimous Decision-Making: The New England Monthly Meetings of Friends
- Seeds for Change - various (@nti-copyrighted) briefings on consensus decision making and facilitating meetings
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