Consensus decision-making sounds like a way to achieve the best possible outcome from the decisions made at work. If you can bring all team members on board, you’ll have developed a decision that everyone likes, respects, and supports.
That’s the theory—but it often falls flat. While all team members “agree” to support the consensus decision, the decision may not, in fact, be the optimal decision for the team or the business.
- Consensus decision-making has many advantages and disadvantages. It can be a precarious way to make decisions.
- The advantages of consensus decision-making include it being a group decision, giving employees a sense of involvement, and providing a united front.
- The disadvantages include groupthink, those with power leverage their position, and agreeing to make bad decisions.
Advantages of Consensus Decision-Making
Group Agrees To Support the Decision
Reaching a conclusion that everyone on the team supports is a positive, often effective, team strategy. With 100% agreement, you can move forward with confidence, and you don’t have to worry about another employee working to undermine your efforts.
Involved Employees See Benefits
To get everyone to agree, it generally (but not always) means that the decision made will benefit every group within the team or organization. You’re not sacrificing good HR, for example, to make finance happy, or vice versa.
You Present a Unified Front
Leadership teams often have to make decisions that employees don’t like or support. You'll find it’s far easier to convince employees who may not like the decision when they receive a consistent message from their managers and senior leaders.
Collaborative Spirit of the Team
When you come to a group consensus, your climate for employees feels cooperative. Everyone’s ideas were heard, and you came to a decision that all team members could support. This interactive process can bring about feelings of goodwill.
Making a decision by consensus could be a good fit for your team if the problem is complex and there are enough people to offer good perspectives, creative solutions are necessary, and employees are willing to participate.
Disadvantages of Consensus Decision-Making
Agreeing to Bad Decisions
Consensus decision-making does not always lead to good decisions, especially if the group is relatively homogenous. For example, in 2018, a group of 14 Idaho Middleton School District elementary teachers dressed in culturally insensitive Halloween costumes after attending a team-building event. The costumes were designed and created during the team-building event.
As can be imagined, the event upset many parents and children of the district. The implicated teachers were placed on paid administrative leave and the school's principal was replaced.
The above Halloween disaster is an example of groupthink—the desire to reach a consensus can cause people to ignore indications that what is proposed is a bad idea. The team pushes aside any data that may derail the consensus decision.
Research psychologist and author Irving Janis first described the theory of groupthink. He offers the eight steps involved in creating the systematic errors of groupthink.
- Illusions of invulnerability lead members of the group to be overly optimistic and engage in risk-taking.
- Unquestioned beliefs lead members to ignore possible moral problems and ignore the consequences of individual and group actions.
- Rationalizing prevents members from reconsidering their beliefs and causes them to ignore warning signs.
- Stereotyping leads members of the in-group to ignore or even demonize out-group members who may oppose or challenge the group's ideas.
- Self-censorship causes people who might have doubts to hide their fears or misgivings.
- "Mindguards" act as self-appointed censors to hide problematic information from the group.
- Illusions of unanimity lead members to believe that everyone is in agreement and feels the same way.
- Direct pressure to conform is often placed on members who pose questions, and those who question the group are often seen as disloyal or traitorous.
Consensus decision-making may not be a good option if your team has no common goal or purpose, does not have a lot of trust, and important information about the decision is not available.
Compromise can help push a decision through, but it’s not always the best possible outcome for any one person or group. Consensus decision-making can cause a group to agree to the lowest common denominator—a solution or decision that satisfies the team members' need to agree—but it may not be optimal for the business.
Additionally, in business, not every factor, department, person, or decision in an organization is equally important. For instance, the HR department may push for no layoffs. This sounds great and is what you'd expect from your HR team. But, by not cutting labor costs, you have to cut costs in another area.
The consensus decision is to cut manufacturing costs and not do employee layoffs, but the result is a shoddy product that eventually causes the company to lose market share. Ultimately, all the employees are worse off. Perhaps the disaster could have been avoided by not treating every department or concern as of equal worth.
Business Is Hierarchical
If your goal is consensus decision-making, this power differential allows the powerful to heavily influence the less powerful to reach “consensus.” Then, if the decision made is a failure, the powerful can point out that “everyone agreed to this solution.” In other words, the aura of consensus decision-making allows the powerful to avoid responsibility.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
What is consensus-based decision making?
Consensus decision-making is a process in which a group makes a decision via a collaborative effort that takes into account the best interest of all parties involved, generally speaking.
Why is consensus decision-making bad?
While not always bad, consensus decision-making can go wrong for several different reasons, including group homogeny, silencing dissenting opinions, and believe that the group's ideas are invulnerable.