There are a number of things that work against consensus being achieved. They need to be recognised and addressed.
When being a member of a group creates pressure on members to narrow down the range of opinions Groupthink occurs. When a group is very homogeneous in character, and attitudes among group members are too similar, it works against consensus. In such cases it is very difficult to generate new ideas that lead to the best decisions. This risk is not limited to groups that seek to build consensus for their decisions. However when coming to consensus is highly prized in a group, there can be pressure to conform. Groupthink can be minimized by allowing individuals to first independently collect information before presenting their recommended course of action.
When there is no group
A collection of individuals who have no shared purpose or common interests cannot make a group decision. There must be something that binds people together and there must also be a shared willingness to work on the project together.
A major challenge facing churches that want to move to consensus building in decision-making is a high level of conflict amongst their members. The level of brokenness in relationships, limited trust and major positional differences are significant challenges and work against consensus.
Nevertheless every effort should be made to find the common ground of some shared values or higher level shared goals. Serious disagreements should not be used as an excuse to avoid trying to build consensus.
No agreed purpose for the meeting
If people think that a meeting is only a rubber stamp for the leadership’s preconceived ideas then you can’t use consensus processes. When a meeting is seen as a source ideas that will be decided upon later then genuine consensus will not be sought. In The Church Guide For Making Decisions Together we make the point that it works against consensus if participants in a meeting don’t agree about its purpose.
As the old saying goes “there are no democrats in a foxhole.” Different kinds of leadership are required for different purposes. A crisis needs swift action and usually a decision about which issue is most important to address at that time. Authority based leadership is most suitable in this context.
When there is no decision to take
Sometimes this occurs when a decision is particularly trivial. You don’t need a sophisticated process to decide the color of the table cloths in the church hall.
On other occasions it will be because not everyone has to agree on a given course of action. A church meeting might gather to consider mission strategies at which many ideas are shared. As interested people gather around the ideas that they support, they don’t need everyone to agree to do their thing before it can happen.
It isn’t the right time
Sometimes a group will not have all the information that it needs so it cannot reach a good decision. In such situations a pause should be taken. This allows for more data or resources to be gathered to inform the next stage of the conversation.
On other occasions people may have a clear idea on what should be done, but will know that now is not the time. Many a good idea fails because it is planted out of season. Being willing to consider “when” is as important as the “what”.
Clearly there are obstacles to coming to consensus – where that means a unanimous decision. For other examples see here. Please share a comment about when consensus building has proved to be difficult and what you did about it.
Even if it is unlikely that you will reach a unanimous view on a given subject – do not stop using consensus building techniques. Continue to show respect for one another. Listen carefully to all the voices. Seek common ground and be prepared to change your mind. Even if you don’t get to full agreement there will be many areas where consensus can be built. By identifying the areas of agreement it is possible to clearly identify continuing disagreements and to generate strategies for addressing them.