How do you make everyone agree? - Consensus vs Consent Decision-making
Many companies love the idea of creating a participative company culture. One where people have a say in the decisions that get made, and how work gets done. But the reality can be a far cry from the wholesome and inclusive ideal they imagine.
Commonly, companies will default to making top-down decisions because it just feels easier and faster. This is the norm for autocratic organisations where one or a few people make a decision that will impact others in the company. There is a very low level of participation from employees, or in most cases none at all. However, as we all know by now, this autocratic approach leaves little to be desired, with people consistently becoming disengaged in these types of cultures, as well as leaders feeling burdened and stressed with the weight of every decision.
In some cases, you may have a company that would love to get more participation, so they decide to gain input through a feedback survey. The survey gets rolled out, the votes get made, and a decision is determined by those results. Seems clear-cut and straightforward enough – Even fair, some may say. And what’s more, the boss doesn’t get the blame for the result. That sounds like a win, right? Not quite.
What happens, (as many of us know), is you have the happy bunch whose vote feels like it matters. Their want is met. But then you have an unhappy bunch who all now have to abide by a vote they never wanted in the first place. We see it happen in politics all the time, and the same happens at work.
Now with a group of unhappy people mulling over their defeat and feeling frustrated, the leaders are left scratching their heads as to why they bothered in the first place. “I made it participative, so why’s everyone complaining?”
On the other end of the spectrum, there are those empathetic leaders who spend so long trying to win a ‘yes’ from every team member on a decision, that it stalls momentum, and by the end, people are so bored of talking about it there’s no buy-in whatsoever.
Here’s why you’re stuck trying to make everyone agree.
Companies are too focused on consensus rather than consent.
Consensus is about making sure everyone agrees on an idea. Working up a complete consensus usually takes time. And time is rarely on our side.
What’s worse, this can mean we end up with a mediocre solution, because we often don’t hear feedback or solutions on how the idea could be improved upon. Consensus assumes that the idea being proposed is the one way it must be done, and everyone must agree on that way.
While consensus is collective, it can be superficial and leaves little room for exploration.
Consensus usually consists of what’s known as ‘The Majority Vote’. To some, this approach is considered engaging and participatory. Voting is also a quick process that can be done with many people and little information.
However, voting also means that many in the group will be ignored. Cue the unhappy people I mentioned earlier. In addition to this, voting doesn’t allow us to gain any new information from the people who voted against the winning decision.
People feel like the decision is being ‘done’ to them, rather than being included in the search for a solution.
Another downfall of consensus is that it dilutes responsibility. Voting is a passive act where there is no collaboration or support. The idea is not built upon, and only becomes supported by those who align themselves with the final decision.
Defined as “no significant objection”, consent means that people agree to move forward, even if they don’t necessarily like the solution. It opens up a dialogue and generates true participation, rather than a false sense of participation that is so commonly created in company culture.
Consent is a mindset shift from, “we all have to say yes”, to “is this decision good enough for now and safe enough to try?”
Through consent-based decision making, you can support your team in supporting a decision, even if they disagree. Here’s a technique to try with your team.
“Is this decision good enough for now and safe enough to try?”
Play with it - Consent-Based Decision Making
Follow this step-by-step to play with consent-based decision making within your own company.
At first, this may feel strange, and you might dislike the rigidity of the process, but once you’ve become accustomed to it, the process can be both efficient and deeply satisfying for all involved.
In order for this to be effective you will need a team member play the role of facilitator to help keep this process running smoothly and keep everyone on track.
Consent-based decision making has become common practice in more progressive organisations, or self-managed companies. This may feel like a new way of working, but some organisations have been using this method effectively for decades.
Step 1 – Present the proposal
To ensure there is clarity, present the proposal or idea to your team. This should be read out loud to the entire group, and given to them in written format.
It’s important to present the proposal in this way to avoid any discrepancies in previous iterations of the proposal.
Give a few minutes at the start of the meeting to allow people to read and absorb the proposal.
Only when everyone feels familiar with the proposal should you move ahead.
Step 2 – Round of clarifying questions
For the next step, it’s time to go around each person in the team and allow them to ask any questions.
This step of the process is not to share opinions on the effectiveness of the proposal, but to gain clarity and remove any ambiguity.
You may want to open this with:
“What do you need to know so you understand the proposal?”
You can then either answer each question as you go around the group or collect the questions and answer them all at once.
Some people may not have questions, so ask them to make it clear also by saying something like – “I have no questions at this time.”
It’s important that at each of these rounds people don’t start getting side-tracked. Everyone must trust and respect the process, as it’s crafted to give everyone a voice and an opportunity to contribute and participate.
You may wish to give your team some prompts for this process to help them feel more comfortable and have clarity about what is being asked of them.
This could include prompts such as:
> “I understand the proposal. I have no questions.”
> “I would like a better understanding of the proposal. Could you tell me more about…”
The clarifying questions round must not be missed. We need to make sure everyone understands the proposal before we can make judgements on it.
Without clarifying questions, we can jump into judgement based on misunderstandings. Although it feels counterintuitive, you’re really saving time with this part, rather than getting into a whole heap of mess when it comes to the reaction round where opinions can snowball quickly.
Step 3 – Quick Reactions Round
The quick reactions round allows people to voice their initial feelings about the proposal. It’s like a temperature check for the proposal. From this round, you’ll be able to understand if there’s work to be done, or if you’re close to consent.
Going around the circle, each team member should highlight briefly if they support or object to the proposal, giving a very brief explanation about why they support or object to it.
> “I like this proposal. I have nothing to add.”
> “I support this proposal because…”
> “I don’t support this proposal because…”
Ideally, this should be as quick as possible so that you can move towards the integration round, but be mindful not to rush this. Don’t allow people to interrupt each other or begin to make further comments. Your facilitator should be the one guiding this process to avoid things going off track.
The reaction round is powerful in so many ways, but none so much as allowing everyone in the team to connect, and to hear how this proposal might not meet everyone’s expectations. We never get this level of insight from consensus voting.
If everyone consents, our work is done. But there will be instances where we must follow the full process.
Step 4 – Integrate Reactions
With those who have vocalised that they object to the current proposal, it’s now time for them to share an improvement or recommendation.
Each person that currently objects now has a chance to share an alteration or amendment.
At this point, the facilitator should note down all of the possible amends that are coming from the group.
After this, the proposer who is responsible for presenting the idea to the team can decide whether or not to amend or change the proposal.
If the proposer decides to integrate the suggestions, they rewrite the proposal and read it back out to the group.
Step 5 – Consent/Objection Round
Once the proposal has been amended by the proposer, it’s now time for another round of consent or objection.
Ideally, the facilitator should ask, “is this good enough for now and safe enough to try?”
If the proposal is accepted, the meeting can close, and you can move on. Giving consent means that if approved, the proposal will neither harm the team nor bring it backwards.
If there are more objections, you can either go back to the integration round or decide to create a forum where this particular proposal can be workshopped to find a better solution.
Gaining objections from your team invites people to get clearer on their personal preference, and the collective purpose of the company.
Why this works
Of course, this isn’t a magic bullet to making things participative in your company culture. The fact is, there are many different types of decision-making techniques we can use to move things along while also giving people the chance to contribute to matters that will impact them.
Giving consent isn’t about perfection, it’s about curiosity and willingness to learn. The decision is approached like an experiment, something to try and come back to.
If the decision you’re seeking is to never learn from it or reiterate it, then this approach is definitely not for you.
While consent-based decision-making is only one technique in a toolbox, it has been proven to build trust among co-workers and leaders, and generate innovative thinking.
Know what Needs to Be Participatory
Before you jump into using consent-based decision-making for everything in the organisation, remember that not everything needs to be participatory. As a company, you still need to be efficient.
There are some decisions that should be left to smaller teams in the company, where those decisions have a small impact and are not a huge risk. For example, deciding on which printer to buy for the office.
However, there are some decisions that are both high risk and high impact where a collective decision-making framework is vital in gaining as much input as possible. For example, deciding whether salaries should be transparent.
Training your company in the various forms of decision-making can not only alleviate the procrastination that comes from day-to-day decision-making but also move your company-wide decisions forward in a far more deliberate and conscious manner.
Examples in Practice
Around the world there are progressive companies and organisations using this style of decision-making to make decisions quickly so that they can learn from them and move fast.
I hasten to add, that these companies are not just small businesses with a unique way of doing things, there are many examples worldwide of much larger organisations who have adopted this way of working.
Here’s a few examples.
Buurtzorg | The Netherlands | Healthcare
Buurtzorg is one of the most famous self-managing organisations in the world, and with 14,000 employees, the company has been using the consent model for almost two decades.
Buurtzorg trains all of its teams on group decision-making without the need for managers or bosses.
Teams of local nurses use integrated decision making to decide on shift patterns and even whether they have the capacity to take on another patient.
LIVESciences | Switzerland | Consulting
LIVESciences is a team of consultants in Switzerland who have been a self-managing company for almost five years. I interviewed their co-founder Timm Urschinger on the podcast in season eight.
Timm was kind enough to share with me why they use consent-based decision-making in their company.
Isn't it worth a try?
Making perfect decisions is impossible – yet we keep asking people to make them. No wonder we get frozen in space of inertia. Too afraid it won’t be good enough; too afraid it won’t work.
Rather than having such a finality about them, decisions can be a doorway to experimentation. If you can utilise this approach in your own company, you might be surprised at how much it fosters a mindset of curiosity and innovation.
We must also stop the default belief that big decisions can’t be made by large groups. Smart companies realise that one sole leader can’t have all the answers. They need to tap into the collective wisdom of the group to find the best possible solution.
Are you intrigued to play with new ways of working? Reach out and let’s discuss how we can work together.