Majority voting and consensus decision making are two distinct approaches to making decisions in group environments, each with its own characteristics and implications. Consensus decision-making is an alternative to debate and passage of proposals that can be approved through a majority vote. It does not emphasize the goal of the full agreement but instead focuses on acceptance or “living with it.” Choosing the right method for the context, and more importantly, managing the dissenting view, is important in making good group decisions.
Majority voting is a decision-making process where the option that receives the most votes from the group is selected as the final decision. It is a straightforward and efficient method that allows decisions to be made quickly. In this approach, the majority opinion prevails, and the preferences of the minority may be disregarded. Majority voting is commonly used in various democratic systems, such as elections, where the winner is determined based on the highest number of votes.
Consensus Decision Making
On the other hand, consensus decision making aims to reach a general agreement or consent among all or a significant portion of the group members. Consensus-based decision making seeks solutions that are acceptable to everyone and considers the concerns and perspectives of all group members. This approach prioritizes cooperation, building relationships, and maintaining harmony within the group.
Criticisms of Consensus Decision Making
Critics of such a process believe that it can involve adversarial debate and the formation of competing factions. These dynamics may harm group member relationships and undermine the ability of a group to implement a contentious decision cooperatively. Consensus decision making requires more time because we explore (and often churn) the dissenting view.
Sometimes we are better as a group to have a debate, take a vote, and move on.
Positives of Consensus Decision Making
Consensus decision-making advocates believe the process results in better decisions by addressing potential concerns upfront and avoiding the lingering effects of lost votes. A better implementation is also a positive byproduct because everyone can “live with it.” And while extending the process can result in factions, proponents believe a cooperative, collaborative group atmosphere can foster greater group cohesion and interpersonal connection.
The Necessity of Recording Dissent
The one simple rule that defines a consensus decision-making process is the necessity of managing and recording dissent. Executive sponsors often do not wish to deal with a potentially messy process that can get political. While some organizations like the idea of building consensus, their culture is often more aligned with hiding or intimidating the dissenting view through majority voting.
When to Use Consensus Decision Making
Some of these situations include:
Complex and multifaceted issues
Consensus decision making allows for a more nuanced understanding of complex problems. By involving all stakeholders and encouraging active participation, diverse perspectives can be explored, leading to more comprehensive solutions that consider the various aspects of the issue.
In critical decisions that have significant long-term consequences, consensus decision making can ensure, when properly facilitated, that all concerns and potential risks are thoroughly evaluated. This minimizes the likelihood of making hasty or ill-informed choices. The collaborative nature of consensus-based approaches also promotes shared responsibility and accountability.
Building trust and cohesion
Consensus decision making fosters a sense of trust, cooperation, and mutual respect among group members. It acknowledges the importance of maintaining positive relationships and values the input of each individual. This approach can enhance team dynamics, improve communication, and promote a supportive environment where everyone feels heard and valued.
When dealing with controversial issues, consensus decision making can help address concerns and avoid polarization within the group. It encourages open dialogue, active listening, and finding common ground. Consensus-based approaches seek to bridge gaps and build consensus by exploring shared interests rather than emphasizing divisions.
Example: SC Statewide Water Master Plan
The SC Statewide Water Master Planning Framework include the following in its bylaws:
“Consensus is built upon identifying and debating all Members’ interests and attempting to satisfy those interests to the greatest extent possible. A consensus is reached when all voting Members (or their designated Alternate in the absence of the Member) agree that their interests have been thoroughly vetted so that each Member can “live with” the group’s final decision. Building consensus may involve proposing alternative solutions, assessing the impacts of those alternatives, and compromising. Consensus, however, does not necessarily mean unanimity. Some Members may strongly endorse a solution, while others may only accept it as a workable agreement. In a final consensus agreement, Members recognize that the resulting agreement is the best one that the voting Members can make at this time.”
The bylaws also recognized the need for Majority (or Super Majority) Voting, namely in amendments to the bylaws and adding or removing members from the planning committee.
The choice of decision-making approach depends on the nature of the problem, the context, and the group’s goals. Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each method allows for informed group decisions. The selection of the most appropriate approach for a given situation is significantly impacted by the facilitation and the culture of the organization in dealing with dissent.
This post first appeared on Substack.
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