1876 cover of Robert's Rules of Order , a book...

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Factories paying below-living-wage conditions and with poor working conditions don’t spontaneously appear; someone decides to establish them and disregard what kind of lives their workers will have to lead.

As a defender of worker engagement and of tripartite labour relations, I find consensus decision-making naturally appealing. Certainly whenever the workers or even a third party gets a say, the result is just about always better than if they don’t.

So, why doesn’t everyone do this? Are there costs of trying to please everybody? What are they?

The collaborators who have produced the Wikipedia page on Consensus decision-making have done a great job at explaining its purpose, benefits, drawbacks and alternatives (as one would hope, since Wikipedia is itself consensus-based!)

Consensus differs most strongly from hierarchy, or top-down decision-making. It also differs from parliamentary procedure (or in the USA, Robert’s Rules of Order) which are designed to obtain majority support for proposals. Consensus decision-making strives to avoid having ‘losing’ stakeholders. You might say it places the continued functioning of the forum or organisation above any single decision-making outcome.

Practically speaking consensus rules may not require absolute unanimity but simple supermajority to avoid situations like the UN Security Council where five historically powerful nations retain unfettered use of a veto.

The main problems of the consensus approach identified by the Wiki editors are:

  • Preservation of the status quo through inaction gives one side of debate a built-in advantage.
  • “Squeaky wheels”: The most difficult stakeholders are carefully attended to while the most agreeable are ignored. This rewards people for disagreeing and might incline them to do so out of simple self-interest, bogging down the process.
  • Abilene paradox: To reach a solution everyone agrees with, the group may end up adopting a position no individual member desired.

So consensus is not a panacea but you be the judge, it might still be a better approach than unfettered managerial prerogative. Ask the people who work in and run co-operatives what they think.

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