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  • Writer's pictureTasha Harmon

When using consensus can work against equitable participation and real collaboration

Updated: Dec 13, 2023

I’ve been helping groups build their capacity for participatory decision-making for decades now.

When I started that work, and, indeed, until quite recently, I believed that using “full consensus” or “consensus minus 1 (or 2)” as a decision rule supported strong participatory decision-making.

That is to say, I believed that it provided a strong incentive and framework for people to work together to:

🌱 Understand each other’s ideas, experiences and opinions;

🌱 Slow down and create or find solutions that would work for the group as a whole;

🌱 Prioritize the needs of the group over the needs/wants/comforts of individuals; and

🌱 Build mutual respect and trust, and thus, build the group’s capacity to work well together.

A couple of years ago, I read this article by Diana Leafe Christian. She challenged that set of assumptions in insightful and meaningful ways. Since then, I have gotten clearer about the situations in which consensus can, and cannot, work.

Consensus decision-making can only work if:

✔️ There is a high level of respect and trust within the group.

✔️ People in the group strongly value their relationships with each other.

✔️ There is a strong set of common values and a strong desire to solve problems together

and to center the best interests of the group.

✔️ The group is committed to being trained in consensus decision-making regularly, so everyone participating understands its goals and rules in a common way.

✔️ There is skilled facilitation, and regular opportunities for new folks to gain strong facilitation skills.

✔️ The people in the group are willing and able to spend a lot of time together, and work diligently on their communication and relationships.

✔️ The group is willing to delegate power, and skilled in delegation.

My beliefs about, and commitment to, consensus decision-making emerged from my early, formative experiences with it, which took place in student activist groups, at the Seneca Women’s Peace Encampment, and at the Center for Popular Economics, a nonprofit that was governed as a collective. These were all groups that fulfilled all or most of those criteria. And it worked well.

However, as I’ve worked with more and more groups over the years, I, like the author of the article, have observed what happens when groups try to “operate by consensus” when those conditions do not exist.

What I have seen includes:

📌 Many unskilled attempts to operate by consensus in groups without a deep understanding of it, or the willingness to develop one, resulting in a lot of messy decision-making processes that don’t serve the group well, and produce a lot of frustration and resentment.

📌 The “tyranny of the minority” - where one or maybe a few people continually control the outcomes of decision-making processes by using the block or the threat of a block to get their way, and the erosion of trust and willingness to engage that comes with that.

📌 Inequities in the distribution of power because the people who have less time and energy to put into the (cumbersome, time-consuming, not well executed) decision-making processes due to life demands or challenges are not represented. This is often women, BIPOC, people with disabilities, people with lower incomes, caregivers, etc.

📌 Exhaustion and burnout of leaders and group members, leading to yet more poor decision-making, the breakdown of trust, etc.

And so, I am rethinking my recommendations to groups as I help them design, or redesign, their decision-making processes.

Rather than encouraging them to use consensus/unanimity as the decision rule, I now focus on moving the group toward a stronger dialogue-based, participatory decision-making process, regardless of the decision-rule(s) they are using.

Curious about what that looks like?

🔆 Participatory decision-making processes are “designed to integrate divergent points of view into creativity and wisdom.” (Sam Kaner)

🔆 Kaner and his colleagues at Community at Work created this wonderful chart describing and contrasting the characteristics of participatory vs. conventional decision-making.

🔆 An excellent overview, and many tools to support participatory decision-making, can be found in The Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making (Kaner et. al).

🔆 I also teach participatory decision-making framings and tools in my facilitation workshops. (You’ll find information on the Offerings page of my website.)

What’s your experience with consensus decision-making?

Have you seen it work well? Under what circumstances?

Have you seen strong participatory decision-making using systems other than consensus?

I’d love to hear in the comments.

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