Decision-making in a “democratic” style (also called consensus decision-making) seems like a way to achieve the best results from the decisions made in the workplace. If you can get all members of a group to agree on a decision, you will create a decision that everyone likes, respects, and supports.
That’s the theory – but in practice, it often doesn’t work out. While all members of a group “agree” to support the consensus decision, that decision might not be the optimal one for the group or the business.
Advantages of Consensus Decision-Making
A group agreeing to support a decision is a positive strategy, often effective in group work. With 100% agreement, you can move forward with confidence without worrying about an employee sabotaging the group’s collective effort.
Participants recognize the benefits when decisions are made.
To achieve consensus among everyone, it often means the decision will benefit everyone in the group or organization. This means leaders don’t have to “sacrifice” individuals when making decisions.
Everyone stands together
You create a unified team standing on the same frontline. When an individual leader makes a decision, employees may not like or support it. However, things are easier when it’s a decision made through voting; employees will consistently convey a message from leadership down to the lowest level.
Enhancing the team’s collaborative spirit.
When you achieve group consensus, you will feel a “collaborative” atmosphere from all employees. Everyone’s opinions have been heard, and you have made a decision that all members of the group can support. This interactive process can help managers gain goodwill from their employees.
Disadvantages of Consensus Decision-Making
Agreeing to Bad Decisions
Consensus-based decision-making doesn’t always lead to good decisions, especially when the group is homogeneous.
For example, in 2018, a group of 14 elementary school teachers in Middleton School District in Idaho wore culturally insensitive Halloween costumes after the group had “consulted” and agreed on the outfits. This event angered many parents. The involved teachers were put on paid leave for a while, and the school principal also lost their position.
The Halloween incident mentioned above is an example of groupthink – the desire to achieve consensus can lead people to overlook signs that the proposed idea is a bad one. The group often ignores any data that might “oppose” the group’s idea or undermine shared confidence.
Psychologist and author Irving Janis described the theory of groupthink. He provided eight factors that create mistakes in group thinking.
- The illusion of the ideas’ “invulnerability” causes group members to become overly optimistic and engage in high-risk actions.
- The “group belief” gradually becomes an unquestioned absolute belief, causing members to overlook issues and consequences of the actions they (and the group) may cause.
- The self-justification of shared ideas prevents members from reconsidering their beliefs and makes them ignore warning signs of failure.
- Conformity causes group members to overlook or even attack those who oppose the group’s ideas.
- Self-censorship in a crowd leads some people to notice “gaps” but not speak up.
- Those who play the role of “gatekeepers” (Mindguards) will conceal information that may cause disagreement within the group, preventing everyone from having enough data to form their own opinions.
- The illusion of consensus makes group members believe that everyone has agreed.
- Different ideas or personal views are subjected to immense pressure, and those who question them are often seen as disloyal or traitorous.
The downside of compromise
Compromise may make decisions easier to pass, but it is not always the best outcome for any individual or organization. Consensus-based decisions can lead a group to agree on the lowest common denominator – a solution or decision made to appease everyone in the group – but it may not be optimal for the business.
Furthermore, in a business, not all departments, individuals, or decisions have equal value. For example, human resources may want to avoid laying off employees. This sounds great and is what you expect from your HR department. However, by not cutting labor costs, we have to cut costs in another area.
The decision reached through “voting” is to cut production costs and not lay off employees, but this ultimately leads to poor quality products, resulting in losses and a loss of market share for the company. In the end, the situation for all employees worsens.
Hierarchy affects decision-making
If your goal is to make a consensus-based decision, power differences allow those who are “stronger” to influence those who are “weaker” to achieve the so-called consensus. Then, if the decision leads to failure, the powerful can say, “everyone agreed to this solution.” In other words, a significant drawback of making consensus-based decisions is that it allows those in power to evade responsibility.
Consensus decision-making has its own pros and cons. It is not necessarily an absolute way to make decisions. Pros of consensus decision-making include being a group decision, giving employees a sense of participation, and creating consensus. Conversely, the cons of consensus decision-making include groupthink, those with power exploiting their positions, and agreeing to poor decisions.