Leadership Skills: Building Consensus

A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus. – Martin Luther King, Jr.

ConsensusOne of the most powerful processes for team decision-making is the use of consensus. Consensus is not a win/lose. It is a win/win for everyone. Each person participates in the decision-making process. There is open and honest debate. There is a negotiated resolution that everyone agrees to support. Everyone gives his or her consent to the decision that best suits the needs of the group.

Consensus is the most misunderstood process that I know. When facilitating group sessions for the first time, I conduct an exercise to demonstrate how consensus works. Without exception, the participants do not realize that I am taking them through an exercise to develop consensus until I point out that’s what we just completed. When asking the group to define consensus, I have yet to find a group that understands how it works and how to define it. Many think that consensus is compromise. I see compromise as a decision in which everybody gives up something and, typically, nobody is happy.

The following list defines what consensus is and what it is not.                                   


What it is not

  • majority voting
  • unanimous agreement
  • pressing individual interests
  • angry sub-group
  • outvoted minority
  • adoption of all ideas
  • decisions made by a power sub-group
  • loud rebuttals
  • sarcastic responses
  • a fast decision-making process
  • attacking people
  • manipulation

What it is                                  

  • a group process
  • the input of everyone is considered
  • the outcome is crafted together
  • the outcome best meets the group’s  needs
  • synergy of decision into
  • the best decision possible
  • the root of consensus is the word consent
  • consent means to give permission to
  • the group’s decision
  • consensus is a cooperative intent
  • attacking ideas, not people
  • a solution that meets the needs of the group
  • communication of ideas and feelings
  • synergy of building collaborative decisions
  • doing the best for the common interest
  • decision backed by relationship
  • shared expectations
  • Key attributes include:
  • humility
  • willingness to listen to others
  • seeing other perspectives
  • willingness to share ideas
  • not insisting on shared ideas
  • honest communication
  • willingness to trust
  • building of relationships
  • participation by all in the process
  • a learning experience

Most groups do not understand what consensus is or what value it has to final decisions.

My favorite definition for consensus is a decision that best serves the interests of the organization, that is developed through group process and backed by relationship. Consensus requires trust. Consensus requires active listening. Consensus requires being open to new ideas and expanding of previous thinking.

Robert’s Rules of Order is a process attempted by many and understood by few. It’s time honored and proven. It’s a standard for making group decisions. Consensus is a tool to add to group process. It fills a gap in the Robert’s Rules process. If the group gathers with division and a motion is made, seconded, and discussed and then the call for a vote happens…the motion passes 5 to 4. Yes, the motion passed, however, the group arrived divided and departed divided, as well.

Consensus provides an alternative to the scenario above. If the group arrives divided, then a consensus process is agreed upon. One side states their stand. The other side states their opinion. The group then defines what problem they are solving and agrees on what the problem is. At this point, everyone agrees to explore other options. A list is created of all the possible ways of solving the problem. Using a method for sorting ideas (matrix, dotting each idea, assigning a number value, etc.), the group finds the top ideas and places them in priority order. There is potential at this point to discuss the pros and cons of each idea. The group then votes on the idea that best serves the interest of the organization.

Consensus requires the following:

  1. A Definition of the Situation: A statement defining the problem, the issue, the opportunity, or what the group is deciding. Sometimes there are multiple issues. It is essential to define the question before creating the answer.
  2. A Group Facilitator: A person who conducts the process and is not involved in providing content and is not voting. This person manages the process. The participants provide the content. A facilitator keeps the group focused and on track.
  3. Willing Participants: Each participant must be willing to let go of their personal agenda and agree to give consent to a decision that provides value to the group as a whole.
  4. A Clear Value Statement: It’s crucial to define the value of the decision to the organization, group, or entity. Define why it’s important.
  5. A Visual Posting of Notes: Having written notes for everyone to see reminds participants of the facts. Having written facts allows participants to attack the ideas and not the people. This is especially helpful when the topic is controversial or sensitive. This is also a good way to keep the group focused on the facts and not on feelings.

I have defined consensus as a meeting tool. It is, however, a finely honed skill of the leader who is a skilled facilitator.

Have you effectively used consensus? Give it a try; it’s a powerful tool.


Hugh Ballou

The Transformational Leadership Strategist TM

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