Sunday, February 9, 2014

Consensus and Authority in a Hierarchy: A Proposal

How can consensus work in a hierarchical organization? Wouldn't consensus undermine the authority of the superior?

I have encountered this question in organizations with a strong hierarchical structure. The person in the superior position has the formal decision-making authority and is held accountable for the decisions made. And yet, I do not think consensus decision making and hierarchy are incompatible. I have attempted to lay out how consensus can actually work in a hierarchical organization. Although these rules are somewhat tedious, please bear with me and share your thoughts.
  1. If the Head is not a member of the group, then the group strives to reach agreement on a recommendation that is presented to the Head. It is useful if the Head has agreed in advance to fully consider the recommendation of the group and understand its reasoning.

  2. If the Head is a member of the group, and if the group reaches full agreement, then the Head's decision is the same as everyone else's. The Head's authority is upheld in the consensus. For this to work, the Head must be a full participant in the consensus building process.

  3. If consensus is reached, and some of the members are not in full agreement but nonetheless willing to support the decision, then:

    1. If the Head is in full agreement with the consensus decision, the Head's authority is upheld in the consensus.

    2. If the Head is one of those not in full agreement with the consensus decision, the Head has the discretion to ask the group to reconsider the issues, clearly taking the Head's concerns into account (an option available to any member of a consensus-based decision-making group) or adopt a decision other than the consensus decision.

  4. If consensus has not been reached, and there is either agreement by the group that a decision must be made at this time, or there is an external constraint that requires a decision at this time, then the Head has the discretion to make the decision.

So what do you think? Does this sufficiently address both consensus-building and maintain hierarchical authority? Are there any loose ends?

1 comment:

  1. This makes sense to me, Sandy… I tend to think of the general process as a "this, or something better…", where "this" is the proposal that the Decider will be implementing as a default in the absence of "something better", while the "something better" is a shared outcome that everyone, including the Decider, feels is better than the original proposal.

    I do think this works best, if the Decider is a full participant in the exploration for a "something better." In Dynamic Facilitation, we usually ask the Decided to go first in the "purging" process, since we find that participants tend to be more comfortable participating once they know where leadership stands on a particular issue. Our process is more co-sensing than consensus, yet we share the aim of arriving at outcomes that everyone is truly excited about.


Any comments?