Consensus – The Association Leadership Challenge

By Rick Church, Head Coach, CM Services Inc.

Consensus is a collaborative process by which decisions are made based on overwhelming agreement of a group. Ultimately a decision by consensus is one that everyone supports (or can live with).

Associations are groups of people or companies with similar interests or in similar professions or industries. 

Even though bylaws and rules of order typically set numerical requirements for voting, associations by their very nature must make many decisions through a consensus process because there isn’t one person in charge or one “owner.” 

But how does an association leader help the association achieve decisions through consensus? This can be especially challenging because most association leaders are volunteers who have never followed a consensus based decision-making process. They’re used to making the decisions on their own or within a small leadership team. 

Here are some keys to follow in helping your association implement a successful consensus-based decision-making process:

    1. Clearly define up front for your Board or Committee the consensus decision-making process. Often a vote is necessary and when votes are taken, majority (or bylaws) rule. However, effective Executives understand that the best decisions for associations don’t rely on a “vote” and that a decision will be based on the overall consensus of the group. Get a commitment from your group to reach the decision through a consensus-based process.
    2. Lay out the challenge or issue that needs to be addressed and relate it to the common goal of your organization. Developing consensus is a collaborative process. It’s much easier for a group to achieve consensus when they’re striving to reach a common goal.
    3. Establish the values of trust and openness. In order for a true consensus to be reached, those participating must feel comfortable enough to be completely open and honest. To do so, the group must have trust with and for each other. Consider starting each meeting reminding your group about these values and their importance in reaching good decisions through consensus.
    4. Don’t allow one opinion to dominate discussion. As a consensus builder, it’s your job to make sure there is even handed discussion and input on all topics discussed.
    5. Get everyone to participate. True consensus cannot be achieved if the group hasn’t considered all sides of an issue. Be sure to get full participation from your group. If someone isn’t participating, ask them for their input.
    6. Effective facilitation. As the leader, your job is to facilitate the decision-making process – not to influence it. You should keep your opinion to yourself during the process. If, toward the end of the discussion, you feel something hasn’t been brought up for consideration during discussion, don’t bring it up as your opinion. Instead, say something like, “I’ve heard several different points of view on this subject. One additional point of view, that I haven’t heard yet might be….”. Let the group discuss it.
    7. Find common ground and build on it. At the end of the discussion, when all points of view have been thought through and shared, find some common ground among the various opinions that have been espoused and use it as a building block to reach the final decision.

Helping your organization come to decisions through consensus can be very challenging. However, associations that are healthy and survive long-term follow the consensus process for decision making. Help assure the success and longevity of your organization by implementing these steps and becoming a consensus builder.

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