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Improve Your Meetings by Separating Unanimity from Consensus

Written by: Amy Rebecca Gay | The Meditation Group

Getting decision making right in your meetings can make the difference between having intentional, forward movement or conflict and paralysis.

One common challenge in meetings is the assumption that everyone must agree to make a decision. However, at some point, everyone doesn’t agree – and can’t agree – and there is no constructive way to make key decisions.

When this happens, we see two key dynamics. First, decisions are made, but they just don’t stick. In meetings it appears like decisions are made, and then nothing gets done. The status quo reigns. Because there is no way to move forward until everyone agrees and partners recognize the need to decide, everyone “agrees” in the meeting. Or the discussion never gets “deep enough” to get to the real issues. The “agreement” on the surface belies deeper reservations and lack of commitment. When it is time for action, no one musters the energy because they were never fully committed.

The second dynamic is perpetual disagreement or conflict. This group may not “agree just to agree” but because there is no way for them to reach a principled agreement they keep rehashing the same conversation. Meeting after meeting does not produce a decision. Sometimes the disagreement is so disagreeable that people stop having meetings. It’s another win for the status quo.

By distinguishing between unanimity and consensus and explicitly negotiating when and how to use consensus, teams can both honor their collaborative nature AND make the tough decisions when opinions and interests diverge. How does this work?

It’s first important to understand the distinction between unanimity and consensus. When using unanimity, all decision makers can disagree and thus block the decision. The metric is that everyone is happy with the decision and believes that it’s the best way forward. No decision is made until everyone is satisfied. However, when key decision makers hold incompatible interests, unanimity provides no way to reach a decision. It creates deadlock.

Consensus, by contrast, has three levels: participants can either 1) agree, 2) agree not to block or 3) block. To agree (1) or agree not to bloc (2) means that decision makers can say the following:

  • I believe that other members understand my point of view
  • I believe I understand other members’ points of view
  • Whether or not I prefer this decision, I support it because it was arrived at openly and fairly and it is the best solution for us at this time
  • Consensus therefore allows for the possibility that the right decision is not everyone’s preferred decision, only that it’s the best decision at this time and that they won’t block the decision.

    At its most basic, there are four parts to consensus:

    1. Prepare

    Define the topic and gather background information; consider holding a team meeting to share information so everyone has access to what they need to make a decision

    2. Build consensus

    Focus on what you hope the decision will accomplish and not on pre-determined outcomes, articulate criteria for the decision and put all ideas on the table; problem solve where you see differences

    3. Test for Consensus

    As a majority opinion emerges, test for consensus. If some decision makers are still blocking, continue building consensus and problem solving; continue iterating between building and testing until you’re ready to make a decision

    4. Make decision

    The only decisions that matter are ones that are carried out. Be sure to assign responsibility, a deadline and resources for each task

    While the process is important, it’s equally important for each of the decision makers to commit to not papering over disagreement. Changing one’s mind to avoid conflict or preserve relationships rarely does either. Identifying areas of agreement as you go through the process can help to focus the areas of disagreement. Remembering, too, that sometimes an agreement (even if it’s not perfect) is often better than no agreement at all.

    The best process, incredible skill and lots of good will also does not guarantee that there may be issues on which consensus is not possible. In this case, it’s helpful to have negotiated up-front what to do. Will you take a vote? Will one person make the decision alone? Will you request outside help, like a facilitator or mediator?

    One of the most important steps that collaborative teams can make is to self-consciously evolve their decision making approach and have a back up plan when they reach a road block. It’s the old adage: an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure. So, how are you going to make your next decision?