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How to Reach Collective Decisions without Consensus

It’s 9.30 in the morning and your colleagues are meeting to discuss important questions about the organization. Nobody seems to agree on the direction to take. There’s a lot at stake and everybody is keen to resolve their differences by the end of the day. As the facilitator, you’ve structured the day in a way that will enable the workshop’s participants to arrive at a rational consensus, bringing discussions that have already been going on too long to a close.

This is often the mindset that prevails before an important decision is taken, whether by a board of directors, a jury or an editorial committee. At first sight, seeking consensus is a managerial virtue. But it’s a quest that can drive your organisation to a cliff-edge. At least that’s the conclusion we might draw if we look at politics. 

According to proponents of deliberative democracy such as Jürgen Habermas, the more you encourage public opinion to debate social issues, using “various argument forms including pragmatic, ethical and moral discourses,” the more you enable it to compare points of view and arrive at political decisions judged reasonable by all. This belief can be transposed to the professional and non-profit worlds: the more that colleagues are involved in their organisation’s decision-making process, the greater the perceived legitimacy of the direction taken, even if it’s not a direction they themselves would have chosen. 

The problem with this is that, according to advocates of agnostic democracy such as Chantal Mouffe, not all issues can be solved using consensus methods; it is vital to “perceive the antagonism inherent in all objectivity.” To force a consensus is to risk concealing certain realities, masking antagonisms, balances of power, prejudices and hierarchies profoundly rooted in a society. Consensus can turn out to be toxic, preventing a society from challenging itself. Members of a society “cease to develop new arguments, they tend to forget existing arguments, and their fear of deviating from the social norm promotes conformism,” in the words of doctoral students Henrik Friberg-Fernros and Johan Karlsson Schaffer. This phenomenon can also be transposed to the business world: reluctance to overturn established customs and challenge past decisions stifles innovation and can, in some cases, invalidate an organization’s activity.

The facilitator’s task, whether in politics, the public or private sector, is to achieve a balance between seeking consensus and defending pluralism: between encouraging participants in a debate to take rational decisions and allow enough space for the arbitrary component present in every decision. Here are a few pointers to help reach collective decisions without masking disagreements.

  • Encourage participants to stick to their convictions, and explain that consensus is not an obligation. The culture in your organisation will determine whether they find it easier or harder not to seek consensus, with consensus-seeking behaviour seen as reflecting a professional attitude. 
  • Time the discussions: people have a tendency to believe that the more time spent talking the more likely they are to arrive at a rational decision. The more you limit the time spent on deliberations, the less you give participants the idea that they have to reach a consensus. Faster and more frequent deliberations run the risk of arriving at contradictory decisions, but they might also deliver better results. 
  • Use voting at strategic moments during deliberation: to vote on ideas or actions is to agree to disagree, leaving the arbitrary logic of mathematics to choose between the group’s ideas. Does voting always enable the group to choose its best ideas? Certainly not, but it does help to make progress by weeding out the less good ones.
  • Make the most of semantic inconsistencies and let everybody choose their own words. This doesn’t mean not seeking mutual understanding. Participants will too frequently try to talk the same language and speak with one voice. This isn’t always necessary and can mask certain truths.
  • Preserve ambiguities in the problem the group is attempting to resolve as these will generate ideas. In trying to define a problem too narrowly we tend to overlook certain aspects and to prejudge the solutions that may be needed. If a participant asks you for clarifications about the objective, turn the question back on them and ask the group for their reactions. 
  • Teach the group to manage their uncertainties: repeat their doubts to them and highlight their areas of divergence. Consensus can create a false sense of security and control, and lead to complacency. 
  • Run the workshop multiple times, and if the group doesn’t reach the same conclusions it is all the better: what’s important is to advance, experiment and enable different voices to be heard. 

All deliberative methods can be understood as procedures to enable participants to arrive at a decision in a way that is arbitrary yet reasonable. A rationally derived consensus is an ideal that participants should strive for, but this must not obscure the intractable nature of certain points of view. This means that the deliberative process should be experienced as a time for exchanges, an experience rooted in convergence and divergence, an opportunity for people to update their thinking and reaffirm and reimagine their individual and collective opinions.