Consensus decision-making is in crisis. I suspect it always has been and possibly always will be simply because it’s a process used by human beings.
Wherever you look groups, coops and networks are struggling with consensus. Moreover they’re often having to adopt or invent mechanisms to deal with a breakdown in the process. And many of those mechanisms are aimed at exclusion – silencing a persistent minority that is seen as blocking the flow of consensus, sometimes forcing them out of the group. That wouldn’t be the stated intention of the group, but it’s often the reality. When this happens consensus becomes a form of majority voting – even if the majority needed is 70%, 80% or 90% rather than 51%.
That this happens is understandable. When groups are deadlocked and there’s a sense that ‘most of us’ want to move forward and that irritating minority is blocking progress it can seem like the only way out. We can justify excluding people, or restricting the rights of the few. We can find fault with their behaviour and merit in our own.
In essence we default to our factory setting, which believes that we should act in the interests of the majority (it’s probably more accurate to say that it believes we should act in the interests of whichever group we are in, and we try hard to ensure that that’s the majority). It’s a factory setting because we exist in a factory – an education system, parenting, government all aimed at turning out predictable and malleable individuals. What’s natural is a different matter. I suspect we’re born capable of a lot more cooperation and collaboration, but I’ll leave that to the neuroscientists, anthropologists and evolutionary biologists to decide.
And yet most, if not all, of those using consensus don’t see themselves as part of that norm – the thoughtless consumers, the 9-5ers, the reality TVers etc. etc. If you ask people why they work in a coop, live in a cohousing group, take part in political action groups, work for the benefit of their community, it’s usually an implicit or explicit criticism of the norm. Yet we, the minority, solve our problems with our egalitarian decision-making processes by adopting their mentality – majoritarianism – when the going gets tough.
So what’s the answer? I wish there were a sentence I could type that would shift the future course of egalitarian working, lift the scales off our eyes and solve all our problems. Sorry folks! But it has something to do with the following:
Consensus as values not process.
I feel we need to stop assuming we can collaborate just ‘cos we’re well-intentioned people and do the work to embed a culture of consensus into our own lives and our group lives. If we use consensus as a decision-making process it can only take us so far, and we will hit difficulties. If we adopt consensus as part of our values system, and make it part of the culture of our thinking and our group thinking we may still hit difficulties but at least we’ll have a compass to help determine the right direction for the group. We need to live consensus not just do consensus.
But that’s hard work. Constant introspection. Learning to communicate (with others and ourselves) compassionately and honestly. Learning to read the signs that it’s our ego talking. Learning to do something about it once we’ve read the signs. And doing all of that cheerfully so it’s not all sackcloth and ashes. Who has the time, right? There’s a world to save, a co-operative business to run…… so we do consensus up to a point. And then we revert to factory settings.
Acceptance of our flaws
So let’s accept that we’re flawed individuals that come together to make flawed groups and networks, and that consensus is aspirational. No-one gets it ‘right’ first time. But not getting it ‘right’ doesn’t mean getting it wrong, or that we’ve failed as long as we’ve sincerely tried. After all who lives up to their values all of the time? Let’s practice consensus and accept that we all need more practice. Essential to this is cultivating the ability to laugh together, cry together and learn from our mistakes without defaulting to a culture of blame and judgement.
Honesty about our decision-making processes
If we find the demands of consensus too rigorous for our group, if we realise that we do have an element of pragmatic majoritarianism in our thinking, and that that’s OK with us, then let’s not do consensus. Otherwise we set ourselves on a collision course with conflict between what we state we do and believe and what we actually do and believe.
There are plenty of decision-making systems that have elements of consensus in them without demanding the commitment to collective self-awareness that consensus does demand. There’s sociocracy, holacracy, consensus-oriented decision-making. There are systems such as crowd wise and the soon-to-be renamed dotmocracy. These are all far, far superior to the norm that consensus-types want to move away from.
Consensus is in crisis, and as I said at the start, probably always will be. It’s the age-old crisis of living up to our values not just as individuals but as part of a collective. It’s the crisis that makes life interesting and makes consensus both so infuriating and so compelling.