Consent is a Third Option
Our organizations and networks are systems.
If we want to thrive, we need conditions that meet the range of tolerance of all parts of the system. We need governance and decision-making that integrates diversity and fosters equity. Why? People who work together realize that no one person or entity has the full picture. Everyone has blindspots.
In order to take action together, we need buy-in and support from all those who are responsible for carrying out decisions, as well as those who are impacted by decisions. People who were not bought into the decision can withhold their support and actively (or passively) resist it. Problems that were ignored in the beginning can be costly to fix later. Future opportunities can be lost when trust or relationships are sacrificed.
Decision-makers can save time in the short run by ignoring when people are out of their range of tolerance — but pay many times over in the long run.
There is another option
Some of you are going to read this article and realize that you intuitively operate by consent. Others of you may only know two choices for how we make group decisions: majority voting or consensus. Many people don’t realize that circles of decision-makers or teams have a third option – decision-making by Consent – that can be preferable to either of these for governance decisions.
The Consent Principle means that a decision has been made when none of the participants in the decision have any significant objections to it; i.e. when no one can identify a risk that the group cannot afford to take. Those risks typically involve conflicts with the stated purpose or strategies, or the creation of conditions that would make it very difficult for a member to perform his or her role. Under those conditions, the group or person would be out of their range of tolerance.
An objection is supported by reasons that can be understood by other members. The intent is to understand those reasons and to find solutions that address the objection and bring the group back within its range of tolerance.
Eco-system of Consent
You can think of the range of tolerance like a trout in a mountain stream.
A trout can live and thrive with some variation in conditions. But, if the water gets too warm or too cold, for example, the trout will not survive or reproduce. We say, “The trout cannot tolerate the conditions in the stream.”
At the same time, the trees that shade the stream and keep the temperature acceptable for the trout, also have a range of tolerance in which they thrive and reproduce; as do the host of insects, other fish, crustaceans, leeches, and worms that the trout feeds on; as well as the water plants that give it shelter. To have something as glorious as a mountain stream full of trout requires that conditions meet the range of tolerance of all the interdependent parts of the system.
Our networks and organizations are systems, too. If we want the kind of elegant coordination we see in natural ecosystems, we can use use the framework of the Range of Tolerance as a tool. We can inquire together, and identify the ways forward, that are within the Range of Tolerance of all the parts of our systems.
When group members are getting out of their range of tolerance, it can show up as bad behaviors. For example, when participants stop attending, disappear, grumble in the parking lot, get overly controlling or agressive, or form factions, they may be expressing that they cannot tolerate conditions.
A Consent-based Decision-making Process takes these problems out of the parking lot and onto the meeting table.
By Consent, circle members:
- Can choose to adopt any process, form, or method that enables it to make its decisions and carry them out.
- Can choose to use forms of decision-making other than consent, as long as:
- (1) the conditions for use are specific, documented, and have a defined term.
- (2) the choice can be revisited if a member is no longer in consent.
- Can empower leadership roles and select the people who fill them.
- Can defer to individual, autonomous initiative.
- Can add or remove any member. When a circle considers adding or removing someone, the member being considered for addition or removal shall not participate in the consideration of or consent to the decision.
Why not majority rule for governance decisions?
A system is defined as a group of interacting, interrelated, and interdependent components that form a complex and unified whole. By definition, groups of people making decisions together are complex systems.
Majority or autocratic rule enables decision-makers to ignore important feedback from the system, i.e. reasonable objections from other stakeholders.
Any short-term gains in efficiency from this kind of decision-making are often lost in the long-term as decisions are carried out. People who were not bought into the decision can withhold their support and even actively resist it. Problems that were ignored in the beginning can be costly to fix later. For these reasons, majority or autocratic rule is often a flawed choice as the basis for governance decisions.
Using the Principle of Consent., efficiencies can be found elsewhere:
- Once a high-level decision is made, circles can delegate autonomous decision-making and authority to individuals and teams around issues that are not complex, and/or that are within their expertise, to get things done.
- Members do not need to debate or persuade other members to minimize their objections. Debate is often more about winning than about wisdom. Circles use dialogue as a method of discourse, which is more about learning, so that the circle can wisely adapt its decisions and keep moving. Often, what is learned for one issue, can be applied over and again in subsequent conversations.
- When people know their concerns will be accounted for, they are likely to develop trust. Trust has been demonstrated in the research to reduce “transaction costs” over time.
Why not consensus?
Life is full of risks, complexities, diversity, and “both/and” situations. We often have to make decisions and try things out with an acceptable level of risk and without complete certainty. When we cannot make a decision or move forward until everyone agrees, or we treat every decision as a group decision, we diminish the agility we need to work in complex environments. For these reasons, consensus is often a flawed choice as the basis for governance decisions.
Consensus as it is often practiced can suffer from abuses of power and get bogged down in multiple ways:
- Thinking everyone needs to be part of every decision, which can be very inefficient.
- Not getting to the interests and needs beneath the positions people are holding, and by minimizing concerns.
- Micromanaging people who are taking on responsibility instead of delegating authority with responsibility.
- Assuming that differing opinions about the source of the problems and the nature of the solutions need to be resolved to move forward.
- Avoiding or not having tools to work through conflict.
- Not recognizing and acknowledging power dynamics explicitly. (One way this shows up is that verbal people who can tolerate long meetings end up with more power!)
Consent is an Evolutionary Breakthrough of Consensus
Consent dropped the concepts of blocking and standing aside.
Instead, the “Range of Tolerance” tool gives people a framework for naming “objections” they may sense — potential risks with a course of action that could lead to unacceptable consequences. This is different from their “preferences” about what they like and don’t like.
- In a consent-based culture, decision-makers are accountable for adapting proposals to address objections, even if they do not agree with the assessment of risk. (By definition, those are blind spots!)
- Decision-makers can choose whether or not to adapt to feedback based on people’s preferences, i.e. when people indicate they could live with it either way.
Consent is a default “yes,” consensus is often a default “no.”
Consent in governance is not asking for permission, which is a default “no” to any proposal until it gets approved. Consent is a default “yes,” with the caveat that all decision-makers have blind spots, so, they must test proposals for consent with people who will be meaningfully affected. This is a step intended to reveal blind spots and mitigate negative impacts before taking action. Decision-makers agree to slow down and adapt proposals to meet concerns when they arise, in a spirit of prioritizing trust and relationship.
“Out of consent” does not mean “convince me.”
Much of the wasted time in consensus processes comes from people trying to get others to agree with them. Occasionally, concerns are really about a lack of information, but those are cleared up pretty quickly.
There is a rich tradition of consensus-oriented process and conflict resolution tools that work to help people listen better when they disagree. Everyone can disagree on the perfect solution, and still consent to try out new solutions that integrate differences, within their ranges of tolerance.
Human beings, more than anything, are creative problem solvers. Ninety-nine times out of 100, even when people don’t agree with a concern, they can listen and work to adapt proposals to meet their different perceptions and ranges of tolerance.
Consent is often met with “good enough” solutions to move forward, including a timeframe for evaluation and a willingness to adjust and learn as we go.
Consent is to Consensus like Equity is to Equality
Another consensus breakdown happens in consensus cultures when the norm is that everyone has the same “vote” on every decision, as if everyone’s experience and opinion is equally valid.
In consent cultures, we delegate authority and power with intention, so that smaller teams and individuals are named as decision-makers with a scope of decision-making authority. They have a great deal of autonomy to make decisions that are within the vast range of what people can live with (See above). And, with that power, they agree to slow down, listen, and adapt when someone expresses an objection out of their range of tolerance. Over time, this creates more trust and wiser courses of action.
This approach meshes well with equity, which is about each of us getting what we need to survive or succeed—access to opportunity, networks, resources, and supports—based on where we are and where we want to go.
Sometimes consent leads people to choose a less intense level of collaboration together.
People collaborate on shared aims: promises of value to be delivered. Using consent, an objection would be in relation to the ability to meet aims.
In truth, if our aims are sufficiently different, we will have a hard time finding consent, since we are moving toward different objectives. In that case, people and teams may cleave and re-form in different constellations that align with common aims. We make decisions together at the level of our common aims.
Check out this video of a real-life situation:
You’ll get a taste of how the practical tools and processes can allow people with completely different points of view to find joint solutions and move forward together.
Collaborative decision-making means listening to feedback deeply enough for the whole system to adapt. Finding the consent and range of tolerance among all parts of the system — the business, organization or network — contributes to resilience and responsiveness, like healthy systems in the natural world.