Using Consensus to Enlighten, Not Limit, Decision Making

This month’s newsletter focuses on the art of decision-making and particularly the practice of consensus decision-making.

The lead article was written in response to three recent conversations we had with various board members. In one, a colleague asked: “As a new board member, I hear consensus referred to but I don’t really understand what it means. None of our board members has much experience or training in consensus. How do we know when we should push through to consensus or when a majority vote is appropriate?”

In another conversation we heard a colleague say, “We can’t afford to operate under consensus because we can’t take hours and hours to make decisions.” In a third, we asked a colleague who had worked in Quaker schools for many years how they were able to make decisions in a timely way. He responded, “Our decisions didn’t take long at all. We knew what we were doing. We had practiced for many years and we knew each other pretty well. It never took us hours and hours to make a decision.”

In thinking about these conversations, the following question arose: “How can we learn to use consensus so that it is not limiting, but enlightening, and serves the needs of the group?”

We are grateful for the help of Lysbeth Borie from Eugene who provided us with many insights on this topic.  Lysbeth, along with her colleagues, has helped Waldorf schools understand and practice consensus decision making for many years.  She has a deep appreciation of the challenges of reaching real consensus in a collaborative organization.

Along with helping edit the lead article, Lysbeth provided us with a short essay about consensus and mandates, and helped us gather a collection of helpful resources that we will also post on the site.

We have chosen pictures this month of flocks of birds in flight, showing how from a seeming chaotic random flight of many birds, beautiful patterns emerge. If you have ever seen them in flight like this, you will understand the connection with our work in organizations building consensus.

Making Good Decisions

When a faculty or board needs to make decision of major significance, how does the group assure that the decision is well considered and supported by everyone who needs to be involved?

Shared decision making can be a challenging area for a Waldorf school. It involves building agreement for decisions and creating clarity around decision making authority and processes.

A good decision is the result of both having the organizational culture and structure that supports timely and thorough processes, and assuring that various groups and individuals, who have the authority to make decisions in their respective areas, understand and follow those processes.


There’s a general agreement in most Waldorf schools that both committees and the school as a whole should operate by consensus and that when consensus can’t be reached an alternative path (usually a vote with majority rule) should be taken for the sake of timeliness.

There’s also an underlying idea in most schools that, since everyone cannot be involved in every decision, smaller groups ought to be given the responsibility to make decisions on behalf of the whole.  The decision-making authority given to a group is usually outlined in its mandate. (Search the resources section for more information on mandates)

Both of these ideas, consensus and mandates, are important.  But they are not always fully understood or practiced.  There are many reasons for this, including:

  • The regular turnover of volunteers and other leadership;
  • The lack of ongoing training in consensus or mandate creation;
  • Confusion about which process might be best applied in a given situation.

Here are some basic guidelines to help every school improve their decision-making process:

1.     Decide before you decide.

Every group will be faced with having to make small or large decisions to complete its work. The most effective groups always decide how they are going to make decisions before they start their work. A reflection on their decision making should be part of their annual review. This sounds easier than it is, which leads to the second point.

2.     Know your tools.

Each group must have a good grasp of the nature and practice of different decision-making processes. Once they understand the various processes, it’s important to provide training to help groups find and adopt the best processes for their organization. Training in consensus and mandates, therefore, should be a part of every teacher’s or major volunteer’s orientation. Otherwise, schools will end up with groups that don’t know how to function well. As a result, decision-making is often, by default, dominated by a few individuals. This leads to the third point.

3.     Decide who decides.

Know the roles and responsibilities of each group and individual in the school, including which group or individual makes which kinds of decisions. This takes time to develop but can greatly help groups avoid spending a lot of time on decisions that are easily delegated or, on the other hand, handing over major decisions to a few individuals when everyone’s input and buy-in should be achieved. (Note: there is a very helpful tool, called the RACI model, developed to help organizations identify which levels of activity need what level of involvement from which individuals. (See the resources section for a good article on this.)

4.    Tough it through and respect the process.

When a decision requires consensus, then use the process all the way to its conclusion. The process of consensus, when used well, is a remarkable tool for building community and making well considered, and broadly supported decisions. By the same token, when a task is mandated or delegated, it is best to be clear about the group’s decision- making authority in the beginning and support the group by trusting them to do fulfill their task. Decisions can always be reviewed later to learn how a process could be improved. Trust can easily be undermined and social harmony weakened if groups are not allowed to exercise their mandated authority and to be responsible for the decisions they make. (The resources on consensus in our resource center have good insights into how to navigate tough situations.)

The path to a good decision is not easy but we can develop our understanding of the processes and get better as we move forward.

Affirming decisions 

This is an excerpt from “School Renewal, A Spiritual Journey for Change” by Torin Finser.

Understanding the importance of framing issues can lead us to the best ways to reach decisions in a group setting.

A decision is a form of free human action. When a human being actively searches out and grasps a concept or intuition thereby bringing it to full consciousness, a self-sustaining decision can arise.

Individuals, not groups, make decisions.

Where do decisions come from?  For me at least they have a mysterious quality. It is hard to determine what is really happening in the moment in which an individual makes a decision.

There were certainly important element of preparation, but the second in which one realizes a decision there’s a magical element at work. There’s an intuitive quality to the act, and intuition is connected to the will, the motivational aspect of our constitution. It is as if we were to dive into the lake of decision and really know what we have come to only a split second after we emerge on the surface.

Decisions are bigger, more encompassing than we realize, and our consciousness grasps just a portion of what we what was really at work in the act of deciding. Each person in the group go through a slightly different process; usually, one person surfaces with the decision, and others in the group recognize the validity of the decision and affirm it.

Much confusion occurs in schools and groups that do not understand the nature of decision-making. Blame, hurt, isolation, and social pressure can result from the inability to perceive what is truly at play when decisions are at hand. Experience at first on a personal level, the teacher or parent may gradually lose trust in the group, and the community suffers.

One of the great myths that surrounds decision-making in many Waldorf schools is that consensus is the only way to work and that the inner circle has a lock on all things spiritual. This becomes a lethal combination that can create self-enclosed groups that have the aura of esotericism, thus becoming unapproachable, mysterious, and seemingly superior.

The difficulty arises when the surrounding community observes the quality of decision-making and realizes that those participating in the inner circle are less than divine. Often a crisis in confidence ensues, with much painful learning on all sides. Those parents and teachers who have been through a few of these crises become wiser, learn to work together over time, and see that it is best to enlist the striving intentions of all adults who wish to serve the best interest of their children.

As we have seen, there are also casualties along the way. Teachers grow tired of endless meetings and withdraw to their own classrooms. Parents get fed up with the general dysfunction experienced in decision-making and communication and either leave, or just opt to support their child’s class and not participate actively in all school events. Either way, the school loses vital human resources.

I suggest that a school seeking renewal spend time looking at the nature of decision-making and find ways to differentiate between the types of decisions needed in various situations. For example, one might look at the following possibilities:

Unilateral decisions are the ones needed when there is an emergency, when there is little time to gather a group, and when the task at hand is clear and universally recognized.

Majority decisions can be helpful when a procedural issue needs to be resolved and the group is unwilling to spend the time on a minor issue, such as the starting time of an open house. Some may want it to begin at 1 PM on Sunday and others later in the afternoon. Either way, the event could work well, and a simple majority can make the decision so the more important planning can be done. In the end, it is better for the school that the decision is made rather than waiting to the last moment and leaving too many people mystified or confused. A majority vote also might be taken when the group has spent enough time on an issue and some wish to give over the decision making to a mandate group.

Mandated decisions are those that are entrusted to a smaller group that will act on behalf of the whole. It is important that the whole group knows what the mandate is ahead of time and that the assigned group is trusted to do the required job.

Consensus decisions can bring a collection of individual decisions to a place of mutual recognition. This can be an exhilarating moment in a group; there is a sense of unity that is precious and sometimes fleeting but well worth the effort with the right group. I have found that consensus as a way of decision-making works best in the following context:

  • The group has a stable membership.
  • The group meets regularly, that is once a week.
  • The rhythm of meetings exercises more influence than most realize. The weekly rhythm works well with a highly conscious approach and is needed to support the interconnections necessary for consensus decision making. The weekly meeting cycle thus works more with that part of us that returns to full consciousness over time, whereas monthly meetings are more connected to the cycles of the life forces that work in and around people participating.
  • The group is not too large. I prefer groups of 5 to 12 but I have experienced groups as large as 18 to 24 that in certain circumstances achieve real consensus.
  • The members of the group are committed to the long-term development of the school or institution.
  • The members of the group share a common spiritual striving.

This description of consensus from M Scott Peck describes the delicate nuances involved:

Consensus is a group decision (which some members may not feel is the best decision, but which they can all live with, support, and commit themselves not to undermine), arrived at without voting, through a process whereby the issues are fully aired, all members feel they have been adequately heard, in which everyone has equal power and responsibility, and different degrees of influence by virtue of individual stubbornness or charisma are avoided so that all are satisfied with the process. The process requires the members to be emotionally present and engaged; frank in a loving, mutually respectful manner; sensitive to each other; to be selfless, dispassionate, and capable of emptying themselves, and possessing a paradoxical awareness of the precociousness of both people and time including knowing when the solution is satisfactory, and that it is time to stop and not reopen the discussion until such time as a group determines the need for revision.

One way to foster renewal in schools is to practice honesty with regard to intentions. Do we intend to be a group of the type described here? If we are, then are we willing to put in the work required? If not, can we find alternatives to consensus that we can live with?

It annoys me when these questions are not addressed and a kind of hypocrisy creeps in. We pretend to work with consensus studiously avoid the fact that we are not working out of a shared philosophical basis.  “We are all entitled to our own spiritual practices, after all.“ Likewise, our commitment to the group changes, depending on personal needs and interests. So I attend some meetings but not others, hoping to express my opinions regardless. Schools then wonder why they are not successful, why salaries are low, and why education is not respected in the community. In my view, it is better to have an enlightened leader and than dishonest group processes.

One phenomenon in most schools is that even if one group in the school can say yes to the cited criteria, other groups, by definition, cannot. Most parents groups, for instance, will not be able to meet as regularly as the teachers, limit the size of the group, make the same commitment, and achieve such commonality in terms of spiritual striving. Yet schools need active parents. A central question then becomes: can we be flexible enough as human beings to adapt our membership skills and leadership styles to the needs of the group? In other words, can we let go of ideals that cannot be met by the reality of situations? To answer the needs of the group with flexibility becomes a matter of collaborative leadership. Let me point out here that mixed groups, that is, groups of parents and teachers and other combinations, provide a resource that is far from realized in most schools.

A final thought on the misuse of consensus: there are times when the attempt at consensus, however well-intentioned, can have serious side effects that often go unnoticed at the time but have long-term repercussions for the health of the school. Because it is often socially unacceptable, or personally repugnant to block a decision, the effect can be to silence an individual’s misgivings or drive them out of the meeting into less productive channels of communication. In the worst cases, this kind of individual silencing leads to a kind of repression of true feelings and the expression of opposing thought. As we saw in Sarah’s story, (editor’s note: Sarah’s story is told earlier in the book) a teacher who has felt the social pressure to conform can leave a meeting with knots in the stomach and much to unburden at home. Over time, personal health can suffer, and the home fabric can become frayed. What is not tended to at school is often transferred to the home, eroding preparation and, over time, marriage and family joy.

Some groups pretend to work by consensus when, in fact they use alternatives that are thinly disguised. Here are a few examples:

Majority rule. When we see where most people stand on a particular issue we can force the decision through using the adjournment time or any other rationale to make the minority acquiesce. Often those in the majority do not even know that there was a sizable minority view, and the insights of the few were not able to improve upon the will of the majority.

Unilateral decisions based on the unspoken hierarchy. This way of working takes the form of having a discussion until one or two particular persons speak up, at which time the different perspectives that were in the room suddenly become one. The fact is that some people carry more influence than others. To have influence is not necessarily a bad thing, but when it is obscured under the guise of consensus, it is a real social injustice. It would be far better to say: “we will have a discussion on this topic until our senior colleague or faculty chair feels he or she has enough information to make a decision on behalf of all of us.”

Decisions that are made by groups that are not mandated outside the context of the regular meetings. This is the form that most infuriates me. There is a general meeting with general discussions on a topic. There's no closure or indication at the end of the meeting about what will happen next, but in the intervening week a decision appears. It remains unspoken that a small group met, without the sanction of the whole, and made a decision. If the decision is questioned at the next meeting, the response of that small group will be: you are not being supportive of your colleagues. Who wants not to be supportive? In this way, the issue is twisted instead of being rightly viewed as a gross violation of group process; it is contorted into an issue of support. Many conclude after a few such experiences that it is best not to rock the boat – let others handle those administrative matters they say, I’ll just focus on my teaching.

Thus periodic review of how everyone is doing can redress and balance what is not well. I have found that groups in the school need to hold each other accountable, with minutes that are freely circulated. It is best to write down clearly who was in attendance, what the issues were, which decisions were made and how, and which items were slated for action, along with specific names of the people who are meant to follow through. At the next meeting there must be a review of the decisions, with the expectation of a high standard of performance. To say that there is not enough time is not a valid excuse if tasks or neglected repeatedly. Setting priorities on a monthly basis can be helpful, so that the group is making decisions out of the larger picture. With regular care and tending, a school can adopt the forms of decision-making that respect the reality of the groups within the community.

Torin is chair of the Education Department at Antioch University in Keen NH, Director of the Center for Anthroposophy and General Secretary of the Anthroposophical Society of America. Torin was a Waldorf student, a Waldorf teacher, teacher trainer and is author of numerous books relating to Waldorf education and Organizational Development, including

“School as Journey,” 

“Organizational Integrity,” 

“In Search of Ethical Leadership,”

All can be found in our resource/bookstore section.