Click on the quote below to read the article...

Pardon the corny title, but I want to look at some of the problems  
associated with consensus decision-making, something that has often  
been seen as an ideal form of government, and I want to suggest a  
couple of ways to overcome these problems.

Consensus government sounds appealing, in that it assumes that  
decision-making will be based on the will of the entire group, often  
with the idea being that decisions have been reached amicably and  
with full or even unanimous agreement.  In practice, almost every  
group relies on this to a certain extent, simply because it is too  
awkward to call for a show of hands with regard to every little  
decision.  However, in practice, consensus decision-making can be  
seen as having some serious problems as well.

Although Australian Quakers claim to have a form of government that  
is vaguely different to consensus government, I think it is generally  
seen to be one of the earliest forms of consensus decision-making.   
Something Quakers stress is the need for full support to any proposal  
to be carried forward, with even one person being able to halt  
proceedings by registering strong dissatisfaction.

"So what happens when, say, the meeting thinks that someone should be  
kicked out, and that person strongly opposes being kicked out?" I  
asked quite sincerely in a small meeting of Friends in Newcastle  
shortly before I joined the Quakers.

"Look, if you don't like the way we do things, then don't join us,"  
barked a woman who had earlier been the national leader of the  
Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Australia.  I was shocked  
and speechless, so I timidly apologised for having asked the question  
and said nothing further.

As most people well know, nine years later I found the answer to my  
question, when I was kicked out of the society.  At one meeting,  
there were no less than four people who openly and strongly opposed a  
decision against me, and yet the minute never even mentioned that  
they were there.  To be fair, I think that what happened there was  
probably a good example of how and when Quakers do NOT operate on a  
purely consensus basis, i.e. where the meeting "clerk" has the final  
say, and the decision is taken as the will of God, whether everyone  
agrees or not.

However, what I have seen with regard to consensus government  
(especially when it is seen as the only form of government) is that  
dissent of any sort is discouraged, and members are brought into line  
through some rather devious strategies, of which gossip is the most  
powerful.  In the case of Australian Quakers, it may even go so far  
as to hiring a private investigator to get dirt on those who dissent.

The problem, as I see it, is that, in an obsession with generating an  
image of unanimous approval, those who disagree with anything being  
put forward by the status quo (The status quo being "weighty Friends" when it comes to Quakers.)  
are subjected to immense peer group pressure, even though most of it  
takes the form of quiet whispers and not the outburst that I  
experienced that first day I asked the wrong question.

Within our own Jesus Christian community, we generally operate on  
consensus.  We rarely have a formal vote, and even more rarely have a  
secret ballot.  Nevertheless, I believe that such options should  
always be there in the background as a valid approach if anyone  
should feel that things are heading in the wrong direction.

If there is the possibility of a vote at the end of the  
discussion, then it opens the floor for people to present  
opposing views and to strongly argue the good points of both sides.   
Such an approach is rare in a purely consensus situation, where  
everyone is looking for even the tiniest hint that plans should move  
in a particular direction, so that they can all (with very few  
exceptions) move their thinking and comments in that direction.

In other words, I am suggesting that there is little difference  
between consensus decision-making of that sort and what has been  
called "group-think".  Because peace within the group becomes so  
vital, debate is frowned upon.  Wherein, when democracy is at least  
viewed as the ideal (even if many decisions are made without an  
actual vote), then it not only becomes acceptable to put forward  
opposing ideas, but it almost becomes necessary, so that people can  
be informed of both sides before they cast their vote.

In particular, I think that leaders need to be constantly "counting  
the votes" in their own heads, just by way of listening to  
contributions coming from members.  Not every single member needs to  
necessarily speak up, and if one more than half of the members speak  
in favour of a decision, then the leader can confidently say that  
consensus has been reached, without having to hear from the others.   
The silent minority may have opposed what was said, but, had  
a vote been taken, they would have been outnumbered anyway.  The fact that  
they said nothing generally indicates that they did not feel  
strongly, and so they would usually not oppose the "consensus" anyway.

If, however, those speaking up seem strongly divided, then debate  
needs to be continued until one side is won over to the other, or  
until a vote is taken to determine the will of the majority.

What often happens (and I have been guilty of it myself many times)  
is that a leader expresses a view, a few people express agreement,  
and the others say nothing, so the leader assumes that there is  
general support for the view.  A very experienced leader can almost  
"read minds" just through noticing body language, slight murmurs of  
agreement, etc. in order to mentally "take a vote" with only a few  
people having spoken.  In other words, the leader assumes that  
consensus has been reached even though, to a casual observer very few  
opinions have been heard.

But beware!  If, as a leader, you are wrong about your assumptions,  
it will come back to haunt you, because people will begin to resent  
your misinterpretation of the will of the majority.  In virtually  
every form of leadership it is surprisingly easy for leaders to abuse  
their power, and to get away with it.  But there are limits to how  
often this can happen, and the most ethical leaders will impose  
limits on themselves long before the meeting has to speak up in  
opposition to the abuses.

One of the reasons that followers will let a leader push something  
through that may not have majority support is that leaders often have  
to make unpopular decisions.  If, for example, politicians had to  
have a referendum every time it came to raising taxes, not only would  
taxes not be raised, but they would almost certainly be lowered.  You  
can argue all you want about how much they are needed, but usually  
only a minority will openly choose to impose those taxes upon  

Sadly most system leaders use up their credits by making unpopular  
decisions which blatantly benefit themselves (e.g. pay increases for  
themselves), and such decisions will almost always be made just after  
an election, so that the public will have as long as possible to  
forget them.  However, truly great leaders will have the foresight to  
make unpopular, yet unselfish, decisions which benefit the entire  
group in the long run, even though the decision may cost dearly in  
terms of popularity in the short run.  If the benefits do not show  
themselves soon enough, the leader could be voted out, but that is  
the risk that a good leader will often take.

We are getting away from the topic here, but only slightly.  Over-
riding the majority for either good reasons or bad ones is not  
specifically what we are dealing with here.  Primarily, I am trying to  
get us to see that it can be dangerous to assume that there is unity  
if leaders are not listening very closely to the will of the  
followers.  We don't always have to be total puppets of the followers  
(and that is where over-riding can be done, but needs to be done with  
full knowledge of the risks involved), but we do need to be able to  
convince them of things that we think would be for their good before  
we can proceed to carry through on those things... especially if the  
decision is going to cost them personally.

So, in conclusion, I would say that, while consensus government will  
happen in practice quite a lot, and while it is a great goal to have  
full agreement on issues, unless we test it with a vote occasionally,  
it is one of the easiest forms of government to abuse, because so  
much is left to the leader in terms of determining what the consensus  
is.  The way to overcome this is to become sensitive to hints  
from the followers about what their true feelings are, to actively  
seek ways to convince people before you assume they support you, and  
to occasionally have votes on specific issues to be sure that you are  
fairly representing the will of the group.

Pin It
Don't have an account yet? Register Now!

Sign in to your account