Thursday, April 18, 2013

consensus and decisionmaking

The Uniting church seeks to work by consensus. It relies on a lot of people working very hard, willing to listen deeply, and skillful chairing, to help the process. When it is found, especially in larger groupings, it is a joy to behold.

So here’s a really interesting counter view, from Michael Stiassny, at the Institute of Directors annual conference in New Zealand yesterday.

consensus allowed directors to hide from making tough decisions. “I think it is time we toughened up. We need to be stronger and share our views.” …. passionate people needed clear boundaries … boards and chief executives needed to have full and frank discussions … “If the chair and CEO are holding hands – how on earth are the board going to have a frank discussion?”

I’m not saying I like all the corporate language. Nor am I saying I agree. But it’s worth a read and to consider if at times, consensus leads to poorer decisionmaking and less truth telling in an organisation. Full article here.

Posted by steve at 08:14 AM


  1. The critique of consensus by itself is valid, however the Manual for Meetings is about discernment rather than consensus. Consensus decision making is a good way to move from the power of numbers to genuine engagement in discussion, but those who wish to use consensus decision making to get a pre-determined outcome need to avoid causing offense in what they propose (and thus avoid the hard decisions).

    Discernment is about seeking the will of God. Discernment is not about fulfilling the wish of presidents, moderators and general secretaries. In fact, these people are most effective when they create a safe place for passionate, full and frank discussions. Discernment is listening to the unpopular voice in case God in speaking through that person. I think we need to draw the distinction.

    Comment by David Ferguson — April 18, 2013 @ 12:29 pm

  2. Thats a really helpful framing David.

    I’ve heard far more about consensus than about discernment in my work to date with Uniting Church. So that’s interesting to ponder


    Comment by steve — April 18, 2013 @ 2:38 pm

  3. Thanks Steve, I have been thinking about that too a little lately.

    I believe that the problem is that consensus is a mechanism (and can be easily taught and explained) while discernment is an art. The leaders you have admired were probably practicing discernment, rather than consensus, which is a brave style of leadership as it involves letting go of the result while monitoring and forwarding the process. I was thankful for the amount of time Beatrice gave for practice in our course.

    It was good to go back to the manual for meetings (in addition to the Basis)as I looked to frame our new church council. The stated aim of the manual is about forming a community of discernment rather than a decision making mechanism.

    Comment by David Ferguson — April 18, 2013 @ 8:53 pm

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