Levels of consensus: How to make group decisions

As authentic and successful leaders, we all want our people to feel valued and to feel like they have a legitimate voice in many of the procedures, programs, and practices of our organizations. Often, the way we achieve this sense of investment is by promoting a democratic approach to adopting new guidelines or changes by offering employees the opportunity to vote on said changes. 

It’s fair if everyone gets a vote, right? It’s a simple yay or nay.

Well, as you’ve probably learned by now, when it comes to interacting with people from a wide variety of different backgrounds, ideals, mindsets, and levels of experience, it is rarely, if ever, simple.

In fact, when it comes to deciding on certain issues, we have found that simply voting is not always an accurate picture of the levels of acceptance or dissension surrounding an issue.

Team members may feel pressure to vote in a certain manner and not feel comfortable speaking up about their misgivings or concerns.

Often, what you end up with is a “yes” vote, but it’s skewed in that many of those votes may not be full unbridled “yesses.” They may be failing to address underlying concerns or tensions within your team.

What’s the problem with that?

At its worst, team members may actually feel pressured to vote one way versus another. This really negates the point of voting on an issue in the first place.

If people lean towards the “yes” because they don’t want to be the person that stops the entire project, then you, as the leader, end up with a false sense of buy-in from your team. What might seem like a full-steam-ahead vote is really laced with a lot of uncertainty or trepidation that can stymie forward momentum and leave you scratching your head as to what the heck is going on. 

Levels of consensus

This is why we at One TEAM Partners have championed the concept of “Levels of Consensus.”

When voting on certain issues within our organization, we like to use a tiered approach to acceptance or denial. 

Levels of consensus are as follows:

  1. Yes, I’m willing to advocate.
  2. The decision is perfectly acceptable.
  3. It’s not perfect, but I can live with this.
  4. I’m willing to defer to the wisdom of the group.
  5. We lack unity and need to do more work.
  6. I do not agree and must obstruct.

What these actually mean:

  1. I can say an unqualified “yes” to the decision and would be willing to promote the decision through the organization or be a part of the work involved with this “yes.”
  2. I find the decision perfectly acceptable for me; however, I may not promote it with others.
  3. I can live with the decision. I’m not especially enthusiastic about it and in turn, will likely not have a strong desire to be involved in the heavy lifting of implementing it.
  4. I do not fully agree with the decision. However, I do not choose to block the decision. I am willing to support the decision because I trust the wisdom of the group.
  5. I feel that we have no clear sense of unity in the group. We need to do more work as a group before action can be taken.
  6. I do not agree with the decision and feel the need to stand in the way of this decision being accepted.

This gives people a clear voice that they feel comfortable expressing, and it gives you, as the leader, an even clearer and more accurate understanding of your team’s sense of confidence in making decisions. 

Levels of Consensus help you to discern if the adoption of a policy, procedure, or project has the full support of the team or if you still need to go back to the drawing board to hash out some hang-ups and make further improvements. 

This also gives your employees a safer voting environment which can curb the feeling of a yes or no forced majority. 

For example, if half of your team votes with “It’s not perfect, but I can live with this” and several others vote “I’m willing to defer to the wisdom of the group,” you can see how the enthusiasm or appreciation for your proposal is pretty lackadaisical. It can also tell you that it may be difficult to get assistance with said project, as there aren’t many people that were willing to 100% champion it. Whereas, if you receive a majority of votes that are “Yes, I’m willing to advocate” and only a couple of votes for “I’m willing to defer to the wisdom of the group,” then you know you have a stronger backing on the issue.

Now let’s talk about the flip side of that coin. We’ve mentioned team members feeling a sense of pressure to say yes because they don’t feel strongly enough to stop the entire project, but what about those team members who have no issue voting no on something. A “no” might not be about the project itself, but rather that they are afraid of being looked at as a leader on the project or having to take it on when they don’t have time or feel strongly enough to lead it. In this situation, a no vote could completely stop progress on a project, which may not be this person’s intention; they simply didn’t want to champion it. Levels of Consensus would allow for this person to vote as, let’s say, a “4”, moving the project forward without a fully confident “I’m in.” 

Levels of consensus create comfort

Having a tailored way to say “yes” or “no” to issues within your organization adds meaning to the standard way of taking a vote. It tells your employees that you really want to know what their thoughts on the matter are and shows that you’re willing and open to accepting criticism and adapting until people are comfortable with a group decision. This framework acknowledges the inherent complexity of some topics and decisions and accepts the reality that, in some cases, you will never propose a solution in which the entire team is a “1”. This allows people a way to say “okay” and allow forward movement without feeling like they have to stick their neck out on it. 

It lets your team know you care about and value their input.

For further insight into the idea of levels of consensus, feel free to reach out to us. You can also subscribe to our Ideas page and check out our website for other relevant tips and innovations that help take your leadership skills to the next level. 


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