Why Consensus Doesn’t Work

| | Leading Organizations


When a group needs to make a decision, it is a common practice to seek consensus.  We do this by asking people to vote. Building consensus is after all key in a democratic process. When you have a vote, in essence you “have a say” in the outcome. Even if the vote doesn’t go your way, you still had the privilege of having a voice.

Voting may be an effective way to elect someone into office. After all, you will rarely, if ever, get 100% of people voting to agree on any one candidate, or anything else for that matter. Besides, if everyone agreed there would be no need to even have a vote.

However, contrary to popular belief, voting is a terrible way to make decision by a team. 

In fact, achieving consensus does not help teamwork or foster collaboration, but rather impedes it.

There are two fundamental reasons why…

1.  Because the only people who own a decision made by a vote are those who voted with the majority opinion.

Everyone else gets to say I didn’t agree, which all too often results in behavior that undermines what needs to happen after the decision is made; and

2.  Because the process of building consensus more often than not becomes about winning the debate at hand so you can get enough votes to prove you are right or your idea is the best one.

Unfortunately this tends to polarize people creating a camp of winners and a camp of losers, rather creating the sense that you are one team.  Furthermore, when you are focused on winning, you are not inclined to learn from the opposing viewpoint.  This is a big reason why an intelligent group of individuals does not necessarily function as an intelligent team.

It’s not that consensus is all bad.  It has it’s place and purpose, but it isn’t enough if you want to function like a high performing team.   Nor is pursuing agreement likely to help you leverage the collective intelligence of the individuals in any group.

So go ahead and use a consensus building process to get the opinions and issues on the table.

Use it to ensure everyone’s view is represented and help people understand the different points of views and options available.

Take a vote so you can “take the pulse” on where people stand.

Yet that is where the value in consensus building ends when it comes to making a decision that must be owned by every member of a team to succeed.

If you want everyone on the team to actually own a decision, you must shift the conversation from achieving consensus to building alignment. This requires that you shift your context and process from one of voting to gather agreement to one of choosing to align behind a shared commitment.

When you vote you simply declare your opinion.  If the vote doesn’t go your way, you don’t have to pretend you agreed.  If things don’t work out, you can reserve the right to blame “them” or say “I told you so”.  Choosing, on the other hand, requires you to do the work necessary to be able to stand behind a decision as if you made that decision yourself.  If things don’t work out the only place to look is in the mirror.

It is admittedly much harder to build alignment than it is to build consensus.  In fact, It can be hard work for everyone involved, but it pays dividends when it comes to doing the hard work.

Want to strengthen your team with every decision? 

Stop calling for a vote and start asking for a committed response by requesting of each and every team member to do the hard work of choosing the best possible decision together.


Enter A Comment

Bob Marshall   |   10 January 2013   |   Reply

Does not meet my understanding of the word “consensus”. 🙁

Susan Mazza   |   23 January 2013   |   Reply

What is your understanding of the word consensus?

Susan Mazza   |   23 January 2013   |   Reply

BTW Bob, Sorry for the delay in approving your comment and my reply. I simply missed it in the queue.

Rebel Brown   |   10 January 2013   |   Reply

Great Post Susan!

There’s another aspect around consensus that I recently learned. It has to do with our instinctual brain programming and its called the Herd instinct.

Did you know that our brain literally gives us a pleasure response when we agree with the group? AND it gives us an ERROR signal when we disagree. We are Literally programming to follow the herd. WOW.

In times of uncertainty and stress (can you say TODAY) that instinct is triggered even more strongly and we become wired to follow the group. Talk about herd behavior!

The good news is that once leaders understand how the brain functions wrt to the group consensus – we can change our leadership styles to reprogram that herd instinct. Fro visibly rewarding those that disagree with the herd to modeling our own behavior away from conformity – we can lead our teams to step out of our programming and into innovative thinking!

Love your post and thanks for all the wisdom you share!


Susan Mazza   |   11 January 2013   |   Reply

Thank you for sharing that info Rebel about how we are wired for agreement. I appreciate your kind words!

Robert Brown   |   11 January 2013   |   Reply

That’s right. Consensus should be a by-product of making the right decisions.

Susan Mazza   |   11 January 2013   |   Reply

Well said Robert.

Carl   |   11 January 2013   |   Reply

Thank you for your post Susan,
I especially liked the point you made for making the transition from consensus to alignment.
I think the process of consensus may actually be more important than the outcome. Allowing your team to express their thoughts/feelings is a critical step in the creation of alignment.
Ironically, as I write this, I looked out my window to see a flock of geese in a perfect V. That’s alignment.
Best regards and thank you for your work

Susan Mazza   |   11 January 2013   |   Reply

As Mary pointed out voting is not actually the process of building consensus. I do think the consensus building process can be very important. Often though the consensus building process devolves into getting enough people getting to agreement to essentially “vote yes” or one group proving they are right. People vote yes when they agree and no when they disagree. Agreement is not a committed conversation and all too often the conversation ends there. When a group goes further and does the work to align, however, they are choosing to get behind and “own” the decision.

Your example of the geese is a great visual demonstration of alignment. Thanks for engaging Carl.

Juha Seppänen   |   11 January 2013   |   Reply

Interesting read here. I recently ran into something called Konsent. It’s described in detail in here: http://agiletrail.com/2012/11/08/agile-management-innovations-a-primer/. Instead of having a majority voting, konsent is reached when everyone is in agreement with each other. What do you think of that?

Susan Mazza   |   15 January 2013   |   Reply

I had not heard this term before Juha so thanks for sharing it. “Konsent: Form of decision making within teams or whole organisation where a decision is made when nobody has a reasoned veto.”

Although I do not interpret their definition as everyone in agreement with each other. A condition in which “nobody has a reasoned veto” in my interpretation means everyone can get behind the decision whether they are in 100% agreement with it or not and is essentially what I mean by alignment.

Thanks for engaging and sharing this great information Juha.

Derek Neighbors   |   11 January 2013   |   Reply

“1. Because the only people who own a decision made by a vote are those who voted with the majority opinion.”

Unless of course you require unanimous decision.

“2. Because the process of building consensus more often than not becomes about winning the debate at hand so you can get enough votes to prove you are right or your idea is the best one.”

There are techniques to eliminate debate and drive consensus.

I suggest reading “The Decider” Protocol at http://www.mccarthyshow.com/online/

Kristy   |   13 January 2013   |   Reply

I don’t think a decision point of 100% by vote necessarily promotes ownership. The point has been made about people voting to go with the herd and then voicing or acting dissention after the meeting.

Using the vote as a temperature check and following up by discussing objections and alternatives until each person is invested and sees value in the solution obtains a legitimate 100% decision point and encourages the group to know that their input is valued leading to more ideas and creativity.

Susan Mazza   |   15 January 2013   |  

I concur with you Kristy. Ownership requires an authentic choice to get behind the decision vs. simply casting a vote to express an opinion.

Susan Mazza   |   15 January 2013   |   Reply

Appreciate you sharing the link to the Decider Protocol Derek. It is a great example of a process that can achieve alignment as the outcome. I agree there are techniques like this that eliminate the potentially destructive aspects of debate (sometimes debate is very useful) and drive a consensus.

The context of every individual’s part in any process or decision is perhaps the most important element of all. There is a big difference between expressing your opinion regardless of the process to prove your point of view vs. engaging in a conversation to ensure that the best possible decision is made given the knowledge and intelligence of the group.

Patrick Trottier   |   15 January 2013   |   Reply

Susan, i am glad you made the distinction: ‘consensus’ is not ‘voting’… ‘voting’ tends to create a ‘we’ vs. ‘them’ process (win – loose)…. consensus, as a working definition can be: “Since everyone has had the opportunity to review, discuss and explore all the same information and although you may not agree with a decision 100%, you are able to support it.”

Here is a ‘write-up’ I wrote awhile back on the topic:

“Try ‘OWNERSHIP’! ‘BUY-IN’ Just Doesn’t Make The Grade…”


Susan Mazza   |   23 January 2013   |   Reply

Yes Partrick, true consensus is not about voting. Although, your working definition of consensus is how I would define alignment. I am sharing htis view not to “split hairs” but because I think the distinction between consensus and alignment is a valuable one in facilitating intelligent behavior among teams. The word consensus has a lot of baggage and interpretation of what it means varies in thought and execution.

My point of view…Alignment is choosing to get behind a decision so we can authentically move forward together vs. consensus which is voting to express your opinion so we can get enough people to agree. Consensus to me means determining the prevailing view (often although not always defined by a “majority vote”) i.e., sufficient number of people can agree to move forward. The problem I often see with that in organizations is that the handful of people who don’t agree and do not do the work to challenge a decision enough to get to a decision they can get behind undermine the efforts to implement that decision.

Thanks for engaging and helping me to continue to get even more clear. Appreciate you sharing your article as well.

John Thurlbeck   |   16 April 2013   |   Reply

Hi Susan

I came to your post following your feedback to my post on the International Leadership Blogathon, which I very much appreciated.

Loved your thoughts above on voting as a really poor way to achieve consensus and fully support the view that individual team members have to make a committed response to the best possible decision together. In my view, great team leaders can always create a climate of trust where challenge, debate and consensus are all fully achievable!

Susan Mazza   |   16 April 2013   |   Reply

Glad you stopped by John. It was great to be a part of the blogathon with you! I share the optimism of your last point “great team leaders can always create a climate of trust where challenge, debate and concensus are all fully achievable!

Mugdha   |   07 September 2017   |   Reply

Can you elaborate on your concept of alignment?

Susan Mazza   |   12 September 2017   |   Reply

Hi Mugda, to align means to choose to get behind something. You may not 100 percent agree or it may not be how you would have done things, but your questions and concerns are sufficiently addressed for you be able to support it fully. Does that help?