What Consensus is Not

Many people think that consensus is the same thing as complete agreement. In theory, it is possible that when you start out to reach an agreement by consensus you will find that all participants are in complete accord on all matters under discussion.

Think about your own experience – is unanimous agreement common? Unanimity, by its very nature, is destroyed if one single person doesn’t agree. In practice, this means that if a group is trying to reach a unanimous decision, then every single person participating in the group process has a potential veto that can stop the decision from being reached.

So, if not everyone has to agree absolutely to create a consensus, does that make consensus a kind of majority rule, perhaps where the majority has to be pretty substantial (such as more than three-quarters)? Not really, because in reality that kind of ‘super majority’ mechanism also creates a veto for the minority.

The difficulty with both unanimous and majority-rule decision-making is that they are confrontational, setting up opposing camps of people – them and us. Neither side in a discussion has any motivation to modify their position, to incorporate some of the ideas of the alternative view or to find creative new solutions.

In a majority-rule system, each camp is motivated to press its position firmly enough that it convinces the required number (50 per cent or more) that it is right. In both unanimous and majority decision-making, winners and losers are usually assessed by voting. However, many analysts of management practice have expressed opinions such as the following:

Voting has no place in the consensus-building process. Voting is a convenient way of disposing of an issue with dispatch, but it commonly suppresses conflict rather than resolves it. ... Voting forces categorical ‘aye’ or ‘nay’ choices. Although people are acculturated to accept the will of the majority, they may not feel obliged to support the majority position. (Wynn and Guditus, 1984: p. 45.)