Leadership does not have to include Consensus-Based Decision Making


Today’s brand of leadership is all about inclusion, engagement and service. With that comes an expectation for consensus-based decision making.  But, not all decisions should be based on consensus.


If you’re going under the knife for heart surgery, you don’t want your doctor to wait until everyone agrees on what to do next while you lay on the table.  But if your team is deciding on how to spend limited money on a holiday party, consensus might be the perfect approach.


Most teams assume consensus before they even set a goal for the discussion.  In one healthcare organization I worked with, consensus was not only assumed to be the process for every meeting, it was also one of its values.  It became the mental framework for all discussions, a badge of honor that they wore with pride.  Yet, people complained about how meetings seldom accomplished anything.


Often consensus decision making attempts to meet a need unrelated to the decision to make sure everyone participates and feels heard. Engagement is extremely important. But I ask my clients to separate engaging people from decision making. Certainly, engaged, open, trusting discussions make for better decisions. But not all decisions need to be made by everyone on the team. The question to ask is:

What decision needs to be made and what decision-making process should be used: consensus, majority rules, subject matter experts decides, or the leader collects feedback and makes the final decision? 


Over time, the leadership team at Goodwill of Central and Northern Arizona, developed a strong trusting culture that also encouraged engagement with healthy debate.  Sharing ideas, debating issues, giving feedback became the culture of communication.


When a decision had to be made, sometimes the entire group agreed and consensus was achieved. And other times, the leaders took the rich feedback and made the final decision on their own.  Senior leaders also made it clear how the decision was going to be made but the key was this: each person supported decisions that they at one point may not have supported, because they trusted their teammates.


When people feel heard and respected, they don’t have to make the decision.


Consensus is a fine way to make a decision. Just don’t assume it should be the only way to make a decision.