How can consensus work in a hierarchical organisation?

A proposal for consensus and authority in organisational decision making


I have encountered this question in organisations with a strong hierarchical structure. The person in the superior position has the formal decision-making authority and is held accountable for the decisions made. And yet, I do not think consensus decision making and hierarchy are incompatible.

I have attempted to lay out how consensus can actually work in a hierarchical organisation with the following rules.

If the head is not a member of the group, then the group strives to reach agreement on a recommendation that is presented to the head. It is useful if the head has agreed in advance to fully consider the recommendation of the group and understand its reasoning.

If the head is a member of the group, and if the group reaches full agreement, then the head's decision is the same as everyone else's. The head's authority is upheld in the consensus. For this to work, the head must be a full participant in the consensus building process.

If consensus is reached, and some of the members are not in full agreement but nonetheless willing to support the decision, then: If the head is in full agreement with the consensus decision, the head's authority is upheld in the consensus. If the head is one of those not in full agreement with the consensus decision, the head has the discretion to ask the group to reconsider the issues, clearly taking the head's concerns into account (an option available to any member of a consensus-based decision-making group) or adopt a decision other than the consensus decision.

 If consensus has not been reached, and there is either agreement by the group that a decision must be made at this time, or there is an external constraint that requires a decision at this time, then the head has the discretion to make the decision.

So what do you think? Does this sufficiently address both consensus-building and maintain hierarchical authority? Are there any loose ends?

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A version of this article originally appeared on Sandor Schuman’s blog as “Consensus and Authority in a Hierarchy: A Proposal”.