Voting vs Consensus Decision-making

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consensus

Decision-making methods are a vital part of any groups’ identity and functionality, yet they can often be taken for granted or put into place without much consideration. Organizers, then, should be familiar with the advantages and disadvantages of both voting and consensus systems to build more functional teams.

Voting is a process by which each individual expresses their support or opposition to a proposal. Consensus is a process of building agreement among members for a proposal. The key difference is that voting is decided by the majority, while consensus seeks agreement from all members.

Both systems have several variations and have been studied extensively to look for the most efficient way of group decision-making. While there are many opinions on which system is best, choosing the right system largely depends on the nature and objective of the group. 

Below is a bit more about the differences between voting and consensus, three key questions about consensus-building, and a bit from my personal experience working in consensus-based models.

Basics and Differences: Voting and Consensus

Most everyone is familiar with the classic voting system – one person, one vote. While this system seems straightforward and fair, several issues can arise from one-person-one-vote systems.

One issue is called the voting paradox (or Condorcet paradox) which shows that the preference of the majority changes in a cyclical fashion. Strangely, this concept and the mathematical theory behind it demonstrate that the winner of a majority rule vote can actually make the majority unhappy; this can and does happen in scenarios when there are more than two choices and two voters. 

Other issues with majority rule are more obvious in that the voices of the minority can be marginalized resulting in inefficient decisions (sometimes referred to as the “secession paradox”). This can lead to factionalism and disproportionate outcomes in which the minority never gets the outcome it seeks. For example, if ¾ of a team forms a voting block, they will get their way 100% of the time; even though it would be more egalitarian for the remaining ¼ to get their way 25% of the time.

Hopefully, before a vote is taken, there is a period of debate or discussion on the proposal at hand allowing voters ample time to weigh their options. Nonetheless, voting can also fall into another critical trap – there is little incentive or drive for compromise. Because final decisions are made by one vote, there is seldom any room to revise a proposal and make it more agreeable to the group at large. This system, then, can be too rigid to reach optimal outcomes.

Consensus systems, on the other hand, are designed to be flexible, deliberative, and offer groups the opportunity to continually revise proposals until the whole group agrees. The process of consensus-building is typically conducted through a formalized discussion (NOT a debate) in which each group member has the opportunity to express concerns and/or reasons for supporting a proposal. This group deliberation and revision continues until all group members agree and/or are willing to go along with the proposal.

Naturally, this process reflects the views of the group much better and ensures that minority voices are not permanently cast aside. Consensus systems, if done properly, create better group cohesion, more group buy-in, and (theoretically, at least) can create more optimal and creative solutions. However, the process is not without its drawbacks. The next section takes a look at consensus systems and their disadvantages.  

Three Key Questions About Consensus Systems

What are the disadvantages of consensus?

Major disadvantages of consensus models include lengthy deliberative processes, delayed action, and pressure among group members to confirm leading to “groupthink.” These issues can paradoxically lead the highly participatory process toward solutions that are suboptimal for individuals and the group.

Does consensus mean unanimous?

Consensus does not mean “unanimous.” Consensus-building processes are meant to get agreement among group members for a course of action. However, the process allows for and often encourages dissenting opinions. Those who disagree can nonetheless support a decision for the good of the group.

How do you use consensus?

There are several formal systems to use the consensus model including “fist to five” and colored card systems. In essence, these systems give order to group discussions and are meant to ensure a participatory and robust conversation to shape the most optimal decision for the group.

Personal Experience with Consensus Models

Working at a Quaker organization (a group famous for their consensus-building model), I came to appreciate the decision-making process much more deeply than I had previously. In fact, I hadn’t even considered alternatives to hierarchal or voting systems before working with them. Through several years of working with this system for even the smallest to decisions, I realized how powerful the process can be even though it does come with drawbacks.

In my experience, the consensus model produces high-quality decisions and, often, it takes the pressure off anyone from needing to “know” the solution to any given problem. More than that, those working with a consensus-based model expect that their proposals will go through a process of refinement (often referred to as “seasoning” by Quakers) instead of being considered simply on a “yay” or “nay” basis.

That very process has earned the Quakers and their various organizations a lot of respect from the wider community as their decisions tend to be very well-thought-out and principled. While the decisions may not always be the “right” ones, the whole group takes responsibility and, if it’s successful, everyone shares in that success; if they are unsuccessful, everyone shares in the responsibility for improving things in the future.

One major drawback, which I mentioned above, is that the process can often be very time-consuming. During many urgent situations, I noticed that, by the time other organizations were able to act, we would still be in the early stages of deliberation. Often, just ensuring the appropriate people were looped in would take longer than some organizations’ entire decision-making process. 

Needless to say, responding to urgent situations is difficult with the consensus model. That’s not to say it’s impossible, however. The model works well IF you have highly committed team members who are willing to participate on short notice and sometimes during off-hours. 

Quakers, though, have a few advantages when it comes to using consensus. For one, Quakers have a centuries-long tradition of using the process to make very difficult community decisions. Secondly, those who work for their organizations are often highly dedicated individuals who are willing to make sacrifices for the larger group – both in terms of off-the-clock participation and in terms of stepping aside when their opinion is not in alignment with the rest of the group. 

Lastly, in my experience, Quakers and their organizations are typically made up of very independent-minded and intelligent people who work with the ethos of “speaking truth to power.” That group composition, then, helps stop “groupthink” and cultivates an environment in which “unanimous” decisions are met with deep skepticism; if agreement comes too easily, it can even trigger a re-framing of the discussion to help flush out different perspectives.

To conclude, consensus models can be very effective, but require some commitment from team members and must be accompanied by an empowering, safe environment where individuals feel comfortable sharing their views – even if they are controversial. 

Dan Jasper

Dan Jasper is the founder and primary author of Street Civics. He specializes in advocacy and international affairs.

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