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Levels of consensus for group decision making success

|||  —  12/05/21

Gavin was frustrated.

The project team had been going around in circles on a crucial decision for more than 40 minutes without getting anywhere.

“Righto,” said Gavin, cutting off his colleague who was speaking about her concerns for at least the third time.

“It’s time to put this to a vote: Are we going ahead with my proposal, yes or no? All those in favour, put your hands up.”

Gavin looked around expectantly: Five hands were in the air, five were down.

Debate erupted again. “But what about…”

Gavin barely stopped himself from banging his head against the table. Argh! This is why he hated collaborating with people. Making decisions was so much slower when you had to get everyone on board.

Most of us have probably been in a meeting where we’ve felt like Gavin.

Gaining consensus from a group can be hard, particularly if you’re asking for a yes/no answer.

When people are only given the option to support or oppose, it can be tricky to get even simple decisions over the line, and to know how strong the support (if you get it) really is.

Those people with questions may vote ‘no’ simply because they need more information.

Those who vote ‘yes’ may do so begrudgingly despite having reservations, creating issues when you need to deliver on the decision down the track.

So how can you do things differently? How can you make a group decision in a timely way but with more nuance and understanding of where people really sit?

One of my favourite tools to use in these situations is levels of consensus.

Rather than asking for a yes/no response on complex or significant decisions, I ask people to give me a number between one and five.

Here’s what those numbers represent: 

  1. I like it, am on board and can easily accept this decision.
  2. I accept this decision but may have some questions/points to clarify at a later time.
  3. I can live with this decision even though it may not be my preferred option.
  4. I don’t agree but I will not block this decision.
  5. I loathe it and cannot accept this decision.

I introduce these levels at the start of a meeting and have them somewhere everyone can see.

I also discuss what number we want/need people to be at for a decision to pass so everyone is clear on how the levels will work.

It may be that we want the majority of people to be at either level one or two, and we agree to have further discussion if there are multiple people at levels three or four.

If we have someone at number five, we might have to negotiate until we can get them to a four or above.

The rules placed around the levels will differ depending on the group or the type of decision being made.

Sometimes I scrap numbers two and five altogether and make it simpler: they can choose from ‘like it’, ‘can live with it’ or ‘loathe it’.

Even with just three options, you get more information than if you’d only asked for a yes or no.

Why not try applying levels of consensus to decision making at your next meeting or strategic planning discussion?

It can save time, stop the meeting from getting bogged down, cut through repetitive debate, and help your group make decisions much more successfully.

I hope you find it as useful as I do.

Leah Mether helps people get out of their own way with the development of soft skills (which are really hard). She is a speaker, trainer, facilitator, mentor and author of the book Soft is the New Hard: How to Communicate Effectively Under Pressure.

Leah Mether is a communication and soft skills trainer obsessed with making the people part of leadership and work life easier.

With more than 15 years’ experience working with thousands of clients, and an acclaimed book to her name, Leah knows what it takes to communicate under pressure. Like you, she knows the challenge of conflict, personality clashes, and difficult conversations.

Leah is renowned for her practical, engaging, straight-shooting style. Utilising her Five Cs® model of communication, she helps leaders and teams shift from knowing to doing, and radically improve their effectiveness.

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