Board Leadership: Reaching consensus

Posted on by Allison Trimarco

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What does it really mean to reach agreement in a group?

Many nonprofits operate with the goal of consensus in mind – the idea that we should work together to reach decisions that everyone on our team can support. This is a valuable goal and often reflects a commitment to hearing all voices in our decision-making. But in many situations, especially those where consensus is not easily reached, this decision-making process can make tense situations even more difficult.

In casual use, consensus has come to mean “a decision that we can all agree upon.” But this well-intentioned concept can sometimes spark a race to the lowest-common denominator. What can everyone in this room agree upon? That might not be the best quality decision, or the best thing for the organization, its mission, or its community.

So what does it really mean to try for consensus? It really depends on the culture of your organization.

The concept of consensus is most commonly associated with the Quaker faith; Quakers are often credited with pointing out that “majority rules” is not always the best way to make a decision. However, the process used to reach consensus in many Quaker communities is often unsuitable for groups not bound together by their faith and a long-term commitment to the good of the community. In fact, some Quakers have stopped using the term “consensus” to describe their decision-making, instead referring to it as “sense of the meeting” and defining it in this way:

  • Majority Rule Model: “How do we vote?”
  • Consensus Model: “What can we agree to?”
  • Sense-of-the-meeting Model: “How are we led?”

So, assuming that your organization doesn’t have the shared principles of faith that allow you to ask “how are we led?,” can you use consensus in a way that is more effective and more meaningful? Can we avoid majority rules voting while still making effective decisions that truly represent the will of the group?

In my experience, the best results come from a more structured consensus process. Starting by getting agreement from everyone in the group to follow this process is essential to using consensus well. Here’s one approach to making consensus work even when decisions are complex:

First: Set “decision rules” for what will count as consensus. Be clear upfront on the definition of consensus in this circumstance. Does everyone have to agree enthusiastically? What percentage of people have to feel “good” or “good enough” about the decision for it to go forward? Under what circumstances will we allow an individual to block the consensus – meaning that the decision cannot be adopted until the person blocking it is satisfied? And finally (and often most critically): are we truly committed to acting based on the consensus decision? Or are we using consensus to propose an option that a final “decider” will take under advisement? This often happens, for example, when staff members reach consensus but the Executive Director or Board of Trustees actually has the final say. Understanding these rules up front provides order for the process and sets expectations for the group.

Second: Lay the issue on the table, so everyone agrees on the discussion topic. What question are we trying to answer? This takes some skilled preparation and facilitation, so that the question leads to the discussion you need.

Third: Explore ideas. What suggestions do people have to address this question? Ensure that everyone (even quieter participants) has the chance to share their ideas and comment on others’ suggestions.

Fourth: Define proposals. Once general discussion has taken place, the facilitator (and/or participants) needs to articulate the proposal on the table. The proposal should state the basic idea for action, and the rationale for proposing it. For example: “One proposal I hear is that we should focus our energies on working in South Jersey next year, since we have the most opportunity to meet new people there.” Clear articulation ensures that everyone is talking about the same thing – which is essential to a true consensus.

Fifth: Test the waters. Do people seem to agree with this proposal? Can we amend it in a way that builds agreement without diluting its core purpose?

Sixth: Test for consensus. At this point, you have to insist that everyone share their reaction – otherwise, you get a decision that looks like consensus, but is not because some people actually have a “silent disagreement” with the decision that derails the process at a later stage. I am a fan of the “five fingers” method of testing consensus. When asked, each meeting participant has to rate their current feeling about the proposal by holding up the corresponding number of fingers:

One Finger I can easily support the decision or action.
Two Fingers I can support the decision or action, but it may not be my preference.
Three Fingers I can support the decision or action with minor changes.
Four Fingers I support the will of the group, but I don’t necessarily agree with the decision or action.
Five Fingers I cannot support the decision or action.

Each participant is responsible for giving a true rating whenever one is called for, and indicating this by holding up the number of fingers that corresponds to their current opinion. Participants cannot withhold a rating when one is called for; they cannot say, “I’m not ready.” Each person commits to giving the most accurate rating they have at that moment in time.

Each participant is also responsible for explaining why they have chosen their response if asked to do so, in order to advance the discussion (i.e., you cannot say, “that’s just how I feel”). Each person agrees to explain their reasoning so others can understand their choice, which may help build consensus.

At the start of the discussion, the group made a decision about what level of consensus is required to go ahead. Here’s where we use it. Do we have to have everyone at a level one or two? Is it okay if some people are a level four? How many? Can a single rating of five block an otherwise enthusiastic consensus? We use these agreed-upon rules to work our way towards what the group has defined as consensus for this particular topic. In truth, decisions that require 100% enthusiastic consensus are rare, and should be reserved for situations involving the mission, long-term organizational sustainability, or personnel.

The desire for consensus is often rooted in an effort to engage as many people as possible in our work. This is a valuable practice – as long as you use consensus authentically to build the will of a group through collaboration. Over time, groups build their “consensus muscles” and are better able to work together to make solid decisions.

Additional resources:

Allison Trimarco is the founder and principal of Creative Capacity (www.creativecapacity.net), a consulting firm that collaborates with nonprofits to find creative solutions to management challenges. She is also affiliated with The Nonprofit Center at La Salle University’s School of Business (www.lasallenonprofitcenter.org).

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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