Decision Making Models: When Consensus just doesn’t make sense


Consensus as a decision-making model is great…except when it isn’t.  When the need to get buy-in is crucial for success, the group is relatively small and time is NOT of the essence consensus can be a great way to build teamwork, enhance results, and improve people’s ability to be autonomous towards team outcomes.  But people often confuse collaboration with consensus.  Collaboration is an idea and solution generating method, consensus is a decision making model. Though related, they are not the same.

It is also noteworthy to distinguish between being inclusive and being collaborative.  This difference may be a little more subtle but none the less important.  Being kept in the loop (inclusion) is slightly different than having your voice heard (collaboration).  You can be inclusive and never get any input from the other party, or perhaps never integrate their input into the final product.  It all depends on your intent and the other person’s preference.  One person may want to be included but not be overly concerned with giving input on one project, whereas another person has a vested interest and wants to play a role rather than just be informed of what is going on.

They all live on the same spectrum but at varying degrees.  Inclusion is usually a basic desire for most team members – at least tell me what is happening; collaboration is desired when people have expertise to give and a desire to do so; consensus is best when people have a vested interest in the outcome and their full support is required for the end decision to be successful.  So while each can be an effective choice, going to the extreme of consensus all the time can be an exhausting and time consuming process.  And it is not always what people need or desire – sometimes they just want you to make a decision.

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4 thoughts on “Decision Making Models: When Consensus just doesn’t make sense

  1. Thanks for this succinct overview. Too many groups use consensus for every single decision as if it’s some kind of religious obligation. You highlight a few of the reasons why this might not be such a good idea – thanks for that.

    I wanted to suggest that collaboration might be more than just about vested interests – you say: “whereas another person has a vested interest and wants to play a role rather than just be informed of what is going on”.

    Maybe I should say first that my assumption is that a vested interest isn’t a good thing in consensus – we should be looking beyond personal interests to collective interests. And ideally collaboration would be about getting involved because we have a part to play in building a collective decision.

    Maybe that seems a naive view, but I’ve worked with groups who seem to be able to operate on that level, and their consensus is a joy to witness.

    • Matthew, Thanks for the comment! I agree, the desire is for people to act in concert with the needs of the organization. I do believe that people, however, are not initially altruistic. For people to make decisions for the greater good, they first need to personally take interest in what the “greater good” is. In my experience (even in wonderfully collaborative cultures) employee engagement is largely personal before is it organizational.

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