The problem with consensus

Every year I attend Friends General Conference, an annual gathering that attracts liberal Quakers from around the country. Young adult friends (18-35) share our own dorm space and facilitate our own programs, largely independent of the wider gathering. We also have our own meetings for business; a few shy of one hundred young adult Quakers sitting in a room attempting to come to consensus about solutions to whatever issues are current. A few years ago, the focus of the meeting was an issue close to many of the attenders hearts. The issue was contentious and the meeting went on for multiple hours. Most people seemed to be leaning towards one side of the issue, but a small vocal minority were strongly opposed to the majority opinion.

I was frustrated with the discussion and it also happened to be my birthday. I decided that there were probably better things to do with my time, so I grabbed a few friends and left.

We all crammed into my friend’s sedan and went to the only drive-in theatre I’ve ever been to. For shits and giggles I hid in the trunk as we drove through the gate and got in for free. We had a great time watching the movie, drove back to the gathering, and went to check on the meeting. They were still debating the same issue.

As a Quaker, I was trained in the art of finding consensus from a young age. I’ve also worked with a number of non-profit organizations that use consensus as their primary decision-making process. I’ve sat through (and led) a LOT of meetings, and lately I’ve noticed something. Most of the time when I leave these meetings, I’m somewhere between a four and a ten on the annoyance scale. Sometimes I’m feeling angry, other times I’m burnt out. Very rarely do I feel satisfied.

The theory of consensus-based decision-making is a fairly simple one. Include everyone in the decision-making process, and everyone will be happy with the results. Also, including everyone will ensure that all ideas are given a chance, and improve the overall quality of our decisions.

In practice, neither of those benefits is fully realized by most consensus meetings.

Parkinson’s law states: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

Most people who’ve been to meetings run by consensus can relate to this. I’d like to propose a second law: “The subjective importance of a decision expands for anyone who is allowed to take part in it.” That is, it’s natural to want to give your feedback when you’ve been asked to participate in a discussion about something, even if you have no relevant experience or knowledge.

Photo credit: eamoncurry123

Suddenly, people feel attached to issues they had no previous stance on. These meetings can become contentious; leaving everyone feeling exhausted and unsatisfied. When compromise is eventually reached, often all sides feel they’ve given something up. At its most absurd; consensus can become a war of attrition between multiple sides, none of which had any stance on the issue yesterday.

Of course, sometimes there are multiple groups of people who are all genuinely passionate about a particular issue. Sometimes groups reach an impasse, and a direct discussion can help create clarity and vision. But how long should these discussions last? What if there are only a few holdouts that are unwilling to budge?

Consensus is designed to protect the group from bad decision-making or oppression from the majority. In accomplishing this, it allows a tiny minority to prevent the entire group from making progress.

I’m not saying the consensus is never a good way to make decisions. There is value in not shrugging off dissenting opinions. Engaging with well-informed people who disagree about important issues is an excellent strategy for personal growth, and a powerful tool for creative thought.

Consensus as a process is golden. Why wouldn’t you want to strive to include everyone’s input? Why wouldn’t you want to come to satisfactory arrangements for everyone in your group/business/community?

The problem is the actually coming to consensus part. What happens if one person stands in the way? How many ideas are squashed because the proposer already knows a certain group or single person will stand in the way? What if people are giving up on or leaving the community/organization because nothing is getting done even though the vast majority wants to make changes?

In many of the organizations I’ve been a part of (including Quakers) there is a bit of fine print that’s meant to deal with these situations. Usually it’s the ability to revert to a two-thirds majority, or the ability of the moderator or clerk to declare that ‘a sense of the meeting has been reached’. Unfortunately in practice these are almost never used, or the rules for their use are so unclear that it’s impossible to tell when they would be appropriate.

To me, coming to complete agreement is less important than being a part of an organization that is capable of growth and change. I’m glad that I’m part of organizations like Not Back to School Camp and Unschool Adventures that allow me to speak my mind, but have clear leaders whose decisions are final. I think from now on, I’ll be skipping Quaker business meetings.

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13 Responses to The problem with consensus

  1. There’s a wonderful quote regarding making the ‘correct’ poker play from Tommy Angelo that’s relevant to this. The grey area of uncertainty, where there’s a hair’s breadth of difference between potential paths of action, is where the most energy often gets invested for the least benefit. More focus on perfecting the black-and-white will produce greater benefits.

    I think, when you’re dealing with situations of absurdity like what you’re describing, it’s important to consider understanding that the actions aren’t absurd in an intuitive sense for the people taking part. Observing one of these situations seems like an ideal opportunity to study the personalities of the participants, power dynamics, and so on.

    I think it’s important to keep in mind that if there’s a correlation between being a member of a certain demographic and one’s opinion on the topic at hand, it’s probably worth exploring why that is. I don’t have substantive knowledge of this, but I’ve heard/read hearsay that people of color experienced marginalization and ignorance within the Occupy Wall Street movement when the concerns of PoC were seen as subordinate to the other goals of OWS. I have little doubt that this was a fairly common occurrence in these groups that strove to be harmonious and consensus-driven, but unthinkingly acted upon white privilege, and that PoC who spoke against marginalization of more PoC-centric issues suffered social consequences for their actions.

    It feels a little idealistic to say that the process of consensus isn’t the problem, it’s the practitioners. But it does seem like your complaint is more about the culture of consensus-building than the actual Quaker procedure. Not that that’s uncommon – after all, the filibuster in the federal Senate is little more than common procedure, and all that keeps the tradition alive is a stigma against the repeal of the procedure. You discuss the ‘nuclear options’ that you often have available to you in the fine print. But I feel like the heart of your objection is less with the formal process of consensus-building and more with the surrounding culture you’ve seen it in – one of extreme deference and avoidance of _public_ rifts. (I don’t doubt that the fault lines of contentious decisions don’t always end when ‘consensus’ is reached, so it’s a question of appearance as much as anything, I think.)

    • Hey Jessica, thanks for the comment as always! I agree with you that one of the strengths, probably the best strength of consensus is that it allows marginalized voices to be heard. I also agree with you that a lot of my complaints are about the process that I’ve witnessed, rather than the vision.

      But, I do think that a real structural problem with consensus is the tyranny of the minority who want to keep the status quo. It was more than ten years between when a group of passionate Quakers proposed that Germantown Meeting that they should no longer keep slaves, and when they actually gave up the practice. Philadelphia Yearly Meeting took until 2007 to officially recognize gay marriage (individual meetings did before, but as a yearly meeting, even in 2007 the issue was nearly tabled for another year).

      So I agree that hearing marginalized voices is good, but does consensus process give us the best hope of improving the structures that are oppressive in the first place?

      Also, I would argue that this frustration at lack of progress creates as many fault lines and rifts as an actual decision would. Its very frustrating to be held back by a single person or two people who are completely at odds with the everyone else.

      • I don’t think what I was trying to say came through. I don’t disagree with any of your complaints about Quaker-style consensus decision-making.

        The issues you describe regarding the ‘tyranny of the minority’ are not unique to a model which strives for 100% agreement – they are present for any process that gives _any_ power to the minority beyond simple tyranny of the majority. The distinction is merely one of how many intransigent bumps on a log in the group it takes to bring things to a halt. For the US senate, it’s 41%. Technically, in the rules of some of your groups, it’s 34%. But in practice, in these groups in which full consensus was often a higher priority than making decisions, it took just one person.

        Consensus doesn’t have to mean complete agreement. It can also just mean ‘the vast majority of people agree’. My point is that the distinction between Quaker-style consensus and a more pragmatic consensus model with 80% supermajority decision-making is a distinction of value judgments about whether making decisions or remaining a harmonious group is more important.

        Basically, if it’s in the rules, it’s certainly possible for you to walk in to one of these stalled-out discussions and say ‘okay i’m calling for a motion to end debate with a 2/3 vote’, and to make the decision. It’s in the rules. The problem is that doing that sort of thing, ‘rules lawyering’ to borrow a Magic term, would probably be seen by many as a ‘corruption of the spirit of consensus’ or other such things. I’m trying to highlight that the problem isn’t with the ideal of developing total agreement, but with the level of devotion a group has to achieving that ideal in every individual decision. This is very fuzzy, emotional stuff you’re playing with.

      • Ah, gotcha. Yes, that makes complete sense. I agree that the problem is the level of devotion to the idea of complete agreement. I think that is the most important point to me, its the lack of allowance for alternative structure, or outrage whenever its proposed that we move on with disagreement. Thanks for saying that clearly!

  2. Zac Dutton says:

    Matt:

    Have you considered the distinction between consensus and the process referred to as sense of the meeting decision making? In the earlier, the goal is to reach agreement through compromise. In the latter, the goal is to reach a knowing that is greater than oneself. The latter is meant to transcend ego, self interest, and individual attachment to positions. So, we Quakers aren’t doing it right of your experience of business meeting rings true. What do you think?

    • Hey Zac,

      Yes, I thought a lot about the difference between consensus and sense of the meeting. I can say firstly that I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Quaker process that really felt like it transcended ego and self interest.

      If we were truly to meet in such a way, ‘blocking’ consensus wouldn’t be a problem (Quaker process doesn’t actually allow consensus to be blocked).

      Have you been involved in Quaker processes that felt like they truly transcended ego and self-interest? How does one create the circumstances that allow that to happen? Does it have to do with the business process or the people involved?

      Also, in groups of people for which transcending ego and self-interest is possible, does it really matter which form of decision-making is used, so long as everyone is given a chance to be heard?

  3. Zac Dutton says:

    Matt:

    Have you considered the difference between consensus and sense of the meeting decision making? Supposedly, the latter is what Quakers do. And radically, if Quakers did it the way it is meant, there would be no positions, no attachment to particular processes, and no other criterion judging the decision other than that it was made in a spirit of unified worship. It’s radical because it is not how Liberal Quakers have come to understand their own decision making process much of the time. We have established the process so high and mightily it is almost a modern idol. So people get ego-involved because they have forgotten about the intention of the process. I agree with you whole heartedly, but perhaps my remedy would be different than yours. I would say Quakers need to return to what is essential about the process: worship facilitated by someone skilled in listening, and let go of the rest. Liberal Quakers also need to acknowledge, as you rightly point out, that sense of the meeting is not necessary in every instance in which a decision is required (and probably not in a majority of instances).

    • Zac, well said, and I agree completely in the case of Quakers. The question is, what needs to happen in order to make decisions that way?

      • Zac Dutton says:

        Sorry for leaving two responses. I got confused with word press for a second.

        I think there have been only moments when it seemed people stopped thinking about themselves and what they wanted to say and see vs. what NEEDED to be said and seen. I think of it like a mosaic or puzzle (where the picture to be depicted is unknown). To do it, we probably all need to go back to school, as it were. We need all to be clerks in a way…paying attention to what is being contributed and seeing what needs to be said in addition to helping make the mosaic or complete the puzzle. If it becomes about arguing or staking positions, then we’ve already steered off course. It probably also happens most easily during a gathered/covered meeting. I think we don’t reach unity last, we reach it first. We come together into that deepness which is mysterious and unique to the collective connection in the collective experience of the divine, or solidarity. I don’t think it matters what the process is called. I think the Larrabeean model lacks a clear understanding of the place of mysticism, which is so important to a full understanding of Liberal Quaker faith and practice. It is most difficult to achieve because it requires a great deal of self discipline. I want you to start thinking of yourself as an elder in the Quaker faith who can offer this insight to those who’ve forgotten.

      • Thanks Zac! Yes, WordPress is set so the first time you comment I have to approve it before it appears, so you probably weren’t able to see your own comment.

        Also, are you going to start posting on your robust peace blog? I subscribed, just in case. Otherwise, do you have a main blog? I remember seeing a post from you on facebook awhile back.

      • Zac Dutton says:

        My main blog is theliberalquaker.wordpress.com. Soon, though, I will integrate them all into one blog.

  4. Finding your blog made me smile. I’m a mature student faced with the fun of writing an essay about post-politics and the problems of consensus in planning…

    But that’s not why I smiled at your blog…

    My name is Matt Sanderson 🙂

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