Imagine an organization where everyone, from the top to the bottom, had a voice and a right to use it in any decision. Imagine going to work and knowing that no decision that affects your work could be made behind closed doors and without your consent. Imagine a workplace where your thoughts and feelings were embraced in the decision-making process, and your agreement, like that of each of your colleagues, was needed for steps to be taken. I can imagine that workplace — and I, for one, would not want to work there.
An organization run by consensus (or consent-based processes) may help to alleviate the feelings of alienation, disempowerment, lack of voice, and so on which are so prevalent in today’s corporate hierarchies. But personally, I find such an approach fails to embrace everything I can offer — it does not set the bar of integration and participation high enough, and nor does it fully honor me and the people I work with. It’s also just too damn slow.
I’ve experienced consensus-run organizations in action, where everyone has a voice and is given space to share their feelings and get comfortable with any decision to be made. But how much does it really honor those individuals or harness their gifts? When I’ve experienced organizations using these types of processes, I usually feel a discomforting sense of being patronized, as if the end goal is to embrace my thoughts, feelings, and perspectives — to make me happy, to make me feel included, to give me a voice. Or, sometimes, to force me into group-think, to get “bought-in” so we can move forward.
What I want is a deeper honoring of me personally, and a more effective process for the organization. I don’t want to just have a voice — I want my voice to have value and impact. I want to be recognized for my capacity to sense reality and respond to what I sense for the sake of the purpose I’ve signed up to help serve. I want a process that guarantees that any tension I sense can be processed into positive movement forward. Simply giving everyone a voice doesn’t reach that bar, it just gives the illusion of doing so. We can talk forever but never actually process a single tension into meaningful change, or spend so long on each tension that we have no time for the rest of them.
Worse, when multiple people are all trying to address the tensions they collectively sense in search of consensus, all at once, it can become a tug-of-war match for the collective attention. Without clarity on whose tension we’re trying to process — and confidence that we’ll all have a turn — we each end up pushing to get whatever tensions we sense addressed in the limited time we have to do it, at the risk that no one’s tensions will get processed if we run out of time. And by trying to reach consensus, we’re shifting the focus from one person who senses one tension to a group process. The trouble with that is that the “group” isn’t the ultimate sensing instrument here — I am, and you are. To fully honor each of us as sensors of the organization’s reality, we need the capacity to process a tension only one person senses, without the requirement that anyone else even understands it, let alone agrees with it. And we certainly can’t allow others to hold the process hostage until their own tensions are adequately addressed, when it’s not their turn to process a tension.
So I seek a higher bar than consensus. I don’t want to work within a decision-making framework that just placates me and gives me a voice so that I feel included. I want one that recognizes that I am a sensor for reality, and harnesses that capacity for a higher purpose. Embracing that is a much deeper honoring of my voice and my human capacities. I’ve found that getting there requires releasing consensus-seeking in favor of individual decision-making sovereignty, as much as embracing an integrative collective process over centralizing power (for example, in Holacracy®, sovereign autocratic authority is distributed through an integrative governance process).
Now, imagine going to work in an organization where you know that every tension you sense has the ability to get processed rapidly into some kind of organizational evolution, and where everyone has a simple ever-present trust that this is the case. You have the autonomy to do what you need to do in order to fulfill your roles, without any requirement to get consensus or buy-in from anyone, and the authority you hold can’t be co-opted by a group process just because someone doesn’t like the specific decisions you make. You know who is accountable for what and what you have the right to expect from others (and vice-versa), so you don’t have to navigate the bureaucracy, politics, and ego that come with wielding implicit expectations. And when something is unclear, or when authorities or expectations need to evolve, there is an integrative governance process to generate that clarity. Imagine going to work each morning and showing up authentically in service of something larger than yourself, unburdened from others implicit ideas about how you should behave or what’s expected of you, and leaving most days feeling your capacities have been well-used by reality that day, your gifts harnessed and integrated for a purpose you choose to serve.
I can imagine that workplace — I work in it every day.
This blog post was originally published on May 3, 2012, at http://holacracy.org/blog/beyond-consensus