“We use consensus… but vote if we can’t agree”

consensus imageMany non-profits I work with claim they make decisions using consensus… “unless we can’t agree and need to move on, then we vote.”

I highlight that they are not really making decisions by consensus–they are using majority rule and should clarify that in any decision-making policies and procedures.

What is consensus?

A consensus decision indicates the group is collectively willing to move forward on a particular decision (even if some might not think it is the best decision, they are willing to live with it).

But if even one person in the group is adamantly opposed to the decision and can’t live with it, this means consensus can’t be reached and the group can table the decision for the time being or continue to talk to come up with another approach that everyone can live with (sometimes the opposition will end up agreeing to live with the earlier proposal, as long as they feel truly heard).

In other words, a group using consensus sticks to that model for the hard decisions, not just the easy ones; how a group makes its tough decisions points to the decision-making model they really use.

Modified models

One group I worked with found an in-between model they felt more comfortable with. If TWO or more people couldn’t live with the decision, the decision wouldn’t pass. This helped avoid situations where one renegade board member could keep blocking decisions.

Another group said they would strive for consensus but allowed the Chair to intervene and call for a vote, based on criteria the group outlined beforehand. This was then included in their decision-making procedures so it was clear what their model was.

When to decide on your decision-making process

This is very important: clarify and agree on your decision-making processes BEFORE facing a tough decision as the last thing you want to do is try to decide how you make decisions in the middle of a conflict.

If you are going to vote by majority when push comes to shove, then majority rule is your process, even if there is a lot of discussion preceding the vote.

If you really want to use a consensus model, then define what that means, agree to it and document it. And when a new board is elected, review the process at your first meeting so everyone is clear about what it means and how to apply it.

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