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January 19, 2023
ASCD Blog

How to Gain Staff Consensus in Meetings (and Why It Matters)

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Consensus is more than a majority vote—when used appropriately, it ensures every voice is heard.
LeadershipEngagementEquity
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Credit: 777 Bond vector / Shutterstock
Scene: At the May faculty meeting, the principal, Ms. Jones, needs to schedule next school year’s open house.
Ms. Jones: “OK, everyone, let’s get to the next agenda item so we can get out of here. I’d like to propose that we hold the open house the second Wednesday of September, from 3:00 to 5:00 p.m. That’s when I’ve scheduled it the past few years, and I think it’s worked well.”
Mr. Waverly: “The construction project to install the new elevator won’t be finished until the Friday after your proposed date. It could make things difficult for people with young children or limited mobility.”
Ms. Jones: “Let’s see what works best for the majority of people. Raise your hand if the original proposed date works best for you. All in favor? [Majority of faculty raise their hands.] It looks like we have consensus, so we’ll stick with the original date. OK, next item.”
School leaders often misuse the word “consensus” to mean the vote of a majority or presumed unanimity, just as Ms. Jones did in the scenario above. But when used this way, “consensus” becomes a shortcut that can exclude and silence a group’s minority perspectives. Consensus, unlike majority voting, is a process of gaining consent from every person involved.

Why Consensus Matters

Misusing the word “consensus” can be harmful to leaders’ pursuit of equitable decision-making among staff. When used appropriately, consensus can be a powerful tool in every school leader’s equity toolbox to amplify minority voices and improve the quality of conversation and decisions. More practically, consensus can also increase stakeholder buy-in and help busy leaders save time.
The process of consensus is designed to elevate dissenting voices that could otherwise go unheard. This is why consensus has been as an important part of equitable decision-making approaches throughout history—for example, in Quaker practice and during the Civil Rights Movement.

Consensus is a collaborative process among equals that emerges from shared power and control.

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With the potential for dissension comes the responsibility by all to work together cooperatively to form a better proposal—one that works for everyone. Whereas traditional voting is an expression of agreement or disagreement, consensus is a collaborative process among equals that emerges from shared power and control.
When a school leader uses consensus, they are choosing to move away from hierarchical power differentials and share responsibility for outcomes. In doing so, leaders communicate that every voice matters and that working respectfully through disagreement is a professional expectation to produce stronger, more inclusive results. When compared to traditional voting methods, consensus stands out as a tool to increase collaboration and inclusivity:

Majority Voting

Consensus

Proposal must serve the needs of 51%Proposal must serve the needs of all
Stifles minority voices and reduces problem-solvingAmplifies minority voices and increases problem-solving
Win/lose dynamicCollaborative dynamic
Leverages traditional hierarchical power structures (boss/employee)Shares power among equals
The leader is solely responsible for outcomesAll share responsibility for outcomes

Putting Consensus into Practice

One simple way to start exploring consensus is to use “Fist to Five” hand signals the next time a group decision needs to be made. This allows a quick “temperature read,” while both opening the floor to dissenting voices and allowing collaborative possibilities to emerge. If you’ve previously used Fist to Five, it may look a little different to you in the context of consensus:

Hand Signal

Meaning

Fist VETO: I will put my energy into making sure this doesn’t happen.
1 FingerThere are major problems we need to solve before proceeding.
2 FingersThere are minor problems we need to solve before proceeding.
3 FingersThere may be a minor issue, but I’m comfortable enough to let it pass.
4 FingersI feel good about supporting this.
5 FingersI will put my energy into leading this.
Let’s go back to Ms. Jones, who used traditional, majority voting to decide her school’s open house date. In the following example, let’s see what could happen if she tried out Fist to Five as part of a consensus practice:
Ms. Jones: “We need to schedule our open house for next year. We’ve traditionally held it on the second Wednesday of September, from 3:00 to 5:00 p.m. Normally, there is a good turnout, but I want to make sure we are looking from all angles here. So, let’s take a moment to consider the best timing of the event, then show Fist to Five when you’re ready, please. Great. Mr. Waverly, I see that you have two fingers raised. What else should we be considering?”
Mr. Waverly: “The construction project to install a new elevator won’t be finished until the Friday after your proposed date. It could make things difficult for people with young children or limited mobility.”
Ms. Jones: “Thanks for pointing that out! Yes, let’s consider that. I see that Ms. Rosen had two fingers raised as well.”
Ms. Rosen: “Well, the second Wednesday of September this year is Yom Kippur. That’s a major holiday for both me and some of our families. Can we schedule it the week after so that everyone’s included?”
Ms. Jones: “Thank you. Let me take a look at the school calendar. [Pauses and reviews.] Yes, things look clear that week. OK, let’s change the proposal to the THIRD Wednesday of September to accommodate those concerns. Take a moment, then show Fist to Five, please. I see all 3s, 4s, and 5s. We have consensus; thank you for your input! Those who indicated 5s, I’ve written down your names and will be contacting you soon for planning.”
In this scenario, using Fist to Five took a few extra minutes. However, it was a smart investment: appropriately applying a consensus strategy ensured all perspectives were heard. Doing so also avoided the extra time that would need to be spent in make-up communication with staff and parents who could not have attended the original proposed date. Ms. Jones also saved the time of committee organization in the fall by noting those who raised five fingers, indicating their interest in leading the event.
Fist to Five is only a start toward genuine consensus, but it is a simple, concrete strategy that can generate positive outcomes, improve group cohesion, ensure greater fairness for minority voices, and save time in the long run. If you are interested in learning more about how to use consensus tools, Seeds for Change, a social and environmental justice organization, offers a good place to start in this short video: How to do consensus decision making. The same organization also offers a free downloadable guide to help you get started.

Considerations for Leaders

Of course, there are times when consensus isn’t the most effective tool: Autocratic (single-person) decisions should still be made when time is of the essence and only one person is held responsible for the outcome (e.g., deciding to cancel classes due to weather conditions). Traditional majority voting is best used for simple issues that can be broken down straightforwardly into “yes” or “no” decisions, such as awarding contracts or approving budgets. Lastly, full consensus decision-making can become more difficult the larger a group gets, so leaders may need to utilize chairs or ad-hoc committees to form recommendations first so that the process of consensus doesn’t become unwieldy.

Consensus reminds leaders that the more power you cultivate among others, the more your true authority grows.

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Every school leader has witnessed an initiative that is doomed to fail or fizzle. Often, this is not for a lack of good intentions or time invested but is instead due to a lack of understanding of how power and authority function. When leaders use their authority to decide what is “best” for an institution, they eschew a crucial ingredient for equitable success: shared power. For example, a common mistake in equity initiatives is authority figures seeking “input” from minoritized populations but failing to include them in problem-solving or decision-making. When this happens, both the authority and power are still held by a select few, and the differential remains unchanged. Consensus reminds leaders that the more power you cultivate among others, the more your true authority grows. By involving everyone equally in solutions and their implementation, we can reinstate power where it belongs—in the hands of everyone, not just a simple majority.

Patricia A. Hannon is an educator at the Department of Defense Overseas Schools and is posted in Hohenfels, Germany. She is a 2020 Horace Mann Award for Teaching Excellence Recipient and a Museum Teacher Fellow of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. Patricia currently serves as the European Human and Civil Rights Coordinator for the Federal Education Association. *Her articles do not represent information or views of the US Department of Defense.

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