Consensus and Decision Making

This week’s post comes from Mike Meyers.

Whose decision is it? We all make numerous decisions each day. For example, you made a decision to get out of bed and come to work today and now you’ve made the decision to read this blog post. We are all very capable at making decisions and make hundreds of them each day without giving it much thought. However, it seems when the stakes get high, we often fall into bad decision making habits. If you find yourself asking whose decision it is, you’ve taken the very important first step. All too often we go into a major decision without clearly defining whose decision it ultimately is. Nothing drives ambiguity and draws out the decision making process more than a lack of clarity of who owns it.

So let’s say we’ve passed the first hurdle and asked the question of who owns the decision. The natural answer on a significant decision is that it needs to be a consensus. But what does consensus really mean? In theory, it sounds great. We can all be on the same page and go forward with a unified front because we have 100% agreement. But how often does that really happen? On the rare occasion where it does happen, have we considered whether that unanimity is even healthy or does it question whether we are challenging each other enough and pushing for different perspectives? If we need 100% agreement, does that essentially give each individual full veto power?

A few months ago I was reading a book entitled Great Leaders Don’t Take Yes for an Answer by Michael A. Roberto, and he defined consensus in this way: “Consensus does mean that people have agreed to cooperate in the implementation of a decision.” By this definition, consensus isn’t how a decision is made, rather it is how a decision is moved to implementation. 

Roberto goes on to describe the two components that are needed for a consensus:

  • Commitment – a dedication to whatever it is going to take to accomplish the decision or goal
  • Understanding – a firm grasp of the rationale for the decision

Notice what is missing from that definition? Agreement! Consensus does not mean unanimity; it means commitment and understanding. In other words, it means knowing the “why” and being committed to that path. It’s ok to say, “This is my decision, but we need the consensus of the team.” Consensus is critical for implementation but can be a dangerous decision making path if we think of it in the traditional terms of agreement.

At times, it is appropriate to have a group decision. If it is a group decision, we still need to be intentional about how the decision is going to be made. Is it a vote? Is it a group of people advising the decision maker? Does everyone need to be in agreement? Each may be appropriate depending on the situation. Just be aware- if you need full agreement, each individual also has full power to stop a decision from being made.

Next time you are facing a significant decision, don’t fall into the agreement trap by default. Be clear on who owns the decision and work towards building true consensus – commitment and understanding.
Continue Leading the Interstates Way!
Mike Meyers