Dominant Cultures

The “Power” Problems With Consensus (and How You Can Fix Them)

Photo: via Flickr (Creative Commons)
Photo: via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Consensus would seem to exhibit the highest form of collaboration, trust, and transparency.

But what if consensus was frequently used to uphold the interests of the powerful and their interests?

When I first heard about the idea that consensus decisionmaking was a growing tool for those strengthening injustice, I was very resistant to the idea.

“But consensus allows for everyone’s voice to be heard!” I remember saying in my head. That’s because I aimed to have consensus decisionmaking systems in any meeting I was a part of.

Thus, while having the people’s “voices heard” may be true in some cases, those with the most resources often can steer the decisions to the status quo or even more in their favor.

This squelching of “radical” efforts, despite people’s desires for significant change, has even become institutionalized in the culture that advocates for the “moderate.” This slide towards the “middle ground” nearly always supports those in positions of power.

So what are some specific issues with consensus? Below I’ll show some of the ideas that have profoundly shaped my thinking and then show how we can ensure consensus models actually fulfill the intent of active participation.


Problems with contemporary consensus


The seemingly “inclusive” consensus model can hide social power dynamics. The group needs to openly acknowledge the role of privilege and oppression, and seek to address them when they occur, otherwise some people may dominate the conversation.

Consensus systems can lend legitimacy to the powerful/elite. It can be very easy for a privileged group (e.g. a large or wealthy organization or an outspoken individual) to take shelter in the consensus system and cry out that their needs are not being met. This may lead to the group sacrificing the needs of many to placate needs of a single privileged entity.

Remember foundations and other organizations use asset-based planning and consensus models to divert changemakers. The authors of Contesting Community note that institutions invested in current systems focus on these models, as alternatives to social change models, because they avoid conflict/oppositional strategies and tactics that may actually impact wealthy funders.

Pushing decisions toward the middle or a small group, without resolving issues. In particular, those with social privilege (e.g. white, male) are often the biggest culprits of using consensus group processes to move decisions closer to their desired outcomes. Sometimes one or a few people can force the group to make a decision that goes against the desires of the majority.

Knowing the “tricks” of consensus-based processes. Just knowing how consensus works is a huge benefit since there are so many elements to it. So some people, whether intentional or not, can use this to their advantage in achieving their aims.

How to make positive consensus systems


Prioritizing quieter and less frequent voices. For example of two people have their hands raised, choose the one that has spoken less or is a bit more reserved. It’s important to develop this as a group practice so everyone understands why.

Use multiple meeting processes. Design breakout sessions, individual writing sections, and partner shares to bring out the ideas of the whole group and help inform a more robust consensus decision.

Have an “in-tune” facilitator that addresses injustice. As noted in the previous section, there are many ways “power” can appear even in a seemingly horizontal decisionmaking system. So having a facilitator who can spot these dynamics quickly and address them even faster is essential.

Recognize consensus models aren’t the most appropriate for every situation. There may be situations where a consensus system just gives too much voice to those perpetuating injustice, so you may need to use an alternative system of consensus or go with something different altogether.

Create norms that specifically address disruptions, power, and privilege. Intentionally layout expressions of oppressive dominant culture (e.g. one or a few people doing most of the talking, only following one meeting process/style [such as a strictly “logical” one without creativity or emotion], or listening more to certain thoughts/ideas at the expense of others).

How do you use consensus effectively without limiting anyone’s participation? Leave a comment below!

By Drew Serres

Drew Serres began working on Organizing Change to combine his dedication to showing impactful organizing practices with his passion for learning. Find out more about him at the About Page and see his updates on Twitter and Google+