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Consensus Versus Consent

Don't allow your company to be paralyzed by consensus-based decision-making

proceed with consent but get blocked with consensus
proceed with consent but get blocked with consensus

It's long been known that effective companies have a track record of making good decisions, quickly. As facilitators, we are often called in to help in situations where decision-making is stuck. Of all the decision-making dynamics we encounter, there is one that is consistently a red flag for us: consensus cultures.

Raise Your Hand If...

Consensus cultures don't proceed with an idea unless everyone involved agrees that it's the right thing to do. This dynamic creates a decision-making trap that goes like this...

  • The more important the decision, the higher the stakes
  • The higher the stakes, the more we worry about the outcomes
  • The more we worry, the more likely we are to be strongly attached to our preferences
  • Getting to 100% agreement is now much harder (and often impossible)
  • So we're stuck

Tragically, with a consensus culture, the more important it is that we reach a decision, the less likely it is that we'll be able to do so. This trap is potentially catastrophic in a professional setting as it can paralyze a business (or, at least, slow it down so much that it might as well be paralyzed compared to the competition).

Lower Your Hand If...

By contrast, consent-based decision-making asks everyone to default to buying-in and to only speak up if they can't live with a decision. This is a 'stop the train only when you have to' culture that understands the value of making progress - even when people aren't in agreement.

Often, we'll contrast consent and consensus like this...

  • Consent means everyone has to align
  • Consensus means everyone has to agree

The idea of alignment (though it can sound a bit clichéd) is actually a good visual metaphor here...

I may not agree that this is the best direction to go in but I realize that we can't go anywhere if we're pointed in different directions. So let's align and see where your choice takes us.

Coaching From Consensus To Consent

When we spot a consensus culture, we know that's our cue to ask questions like these...

  • Who owns this decision?
  • Who's accountable for the outcome?
  • If you didn't make a decision, what would happen?
  • Whose job is it to make sure all the facts are considered?
  • Who's making sure the process is fair and transparent?
  • Who's driving this decision to ensure it goes a fast as it can safely go?

This line of questioning often exposes gaps in roles and responsibilities that are the underlying reasons the group has fallen into consensus-based decision-making.

Ask Yourself

Are you seeing poor-quality / slow decision-making at work?

What would happen if you tried out some of the coaching questions above?

If your team or managers could use a level-up in the decision-making department, check out our bitesize Decision Making & Accountability workshop.