I write this post with a horrifying blend of psychological literature and my own personal observations. It makes my scientist side cringe. What it therefore represents is the subjective experience of a person with too many psychology degrees.
The consensus model for decision making is used large swathes of the protest movement. It is adopted as it is thought to be democratic, inclusive and non-hierarchical. A consensus meeting is facilitated by a person whose job it is to make sure that everyone who wishes to speak, will speak. Somebody will raise a point, and others will address the point, called upon by the facilitator when they indicate they wish to speak. Through hand signals, people express agreement and disagreement. Agreement is represented by “jazz hands”; disagreement by downward-facing jazz hands. People may make direct responses to any point, and anybody can raise a proposal. I may have done a poor job of explaining consensus meetings for those who have never attended one. This page gives a good overview of the process.
Many people give enthusiastic jazz hands of agreement to consensus decision making due to its leaderless, non-hierarchical nature.
This does not mean the model is without its problems.
First of all, as acknowledged by Maeve McKeown and Lisa Ansell , the model is open to issues with power relations. Both identify an issue which I have noted in my experience of consensus meetings: that typically the same voices will dominate a consensus meeting, and that these dominant voices will often reflect unequal power relations that are inherent in our society. To put it more bluntly, it’s often the loud white guys doing the talking.
In a situation like this, many people do not feel able to speak up. Some feel unable to speak because they feel as though they know less than the dominant voices wheeling out minor, inaccessible theoretical points. Others do not speak as they are afraid of being shouted down with a “direct response” from a dominant voice. Others, still, are overlooked by the (often white, male, able-bodied) faciliator and never get called upon to speak. Some people cannot even attend the meetings: for example, when I visited the old Anti Cuts Space on Bedford Square, the building was not readily accessible to people with disabilities.
Another very important effect, one which I experience in every consensus meeting I attend, is that of feeling unable to speak because I am an “outsider”. In situations where consensus decisions are made–occupations, direct action groups, and the like–there is often an “ingroup”: a core group of individuals. These cliques are often highly cohesive–they share an identity as members of the group. To those in the group, and those outside, powerful effects emerge.
Outside the ingroup, it is difficult to sway the opinion of the group–the consensus. This makes it harder for outsiders to speak and to be heard.
Inside the ingroup, a sometimes toxic effect emerges: groupthink. The word “groupthink” is loaded, melodramatic, reminiscent of an Orwellian dystopia, but this does not mean it does not happen. Through analysis of historical decision-making, and observations of group decision-making, a well-documented effect emerges: cohesive groups, particularly those under pressure, often make poor decisions. Crucially, this tends to happen when the group is attempting to reach a consensus.
The theory behind groupthink proposes eight “symptoms”:
- Illusions of invulnerability creating excessive optimism and encouraging risk taking.
- Rationalizing warnings that might challenge the group’s assumptions.
- Unquestioned belief in the morality of the group, causing members to ignore the consequences of their actions.
- Stereotyping those who are opposed to the group as weak, evil, biased, spiteful, impotent, or stupid.
- Direct pressure to conform placed on any member who questions the group, couched in terms of “disloyalty”.
- Self-censorship of ideas that deviate from the apparent group consensus.
- Illusions of unanimity among group members, silence is viewed as agreement.
- Mind guards — self-appointed members who shield the group from dissenting information.
While I have not observed all of the symptoms, I have certainly noticed a few. Silence–and/or the absence of any form of jazz hands–is generally viewed as a sign of agreement. With all of the talk that goes on, warnings are rationalised. As I outlined above, self censorship can–and does–occur.
So how is groputhink bad for decision-making? Decisions made by groupthink may not be opimal for the following reasons:
- Incomplete survey of alternatives
- Incomplete survey of objectives
- Failure to examine risks of preferred choice
- Failure to reevaluate previously rejected alternatives
- Poor information search
- Selection bias in collecting information
- Failure to work out contingency plans.
One more concept from social psychology and the study of group processes is a concern for the consensus model: the Abilene paradox. This happens when a group decides upon a course of action which is to the preferences of none of the members of the group. Again, it is linked to self-censorship: people do not want to rock the boat and speak up against what they mistakenly believe to be the consensus of the group as a whole.
While, theoretically, the consensus model should stop these group processes from occurring and allow the voices of people from marginalised groups to be heard, in practice this does not happen. For some, like Maeve, the consensus model still represents the best we can get, and it is better than alternatives. For others, like Lisa, the issues relating to inclusivity are insurmountable hurdles to reaching a decision which is genuinely representative of all involved.
I myself think that these problems with the consensus model need to be addressed. I hope that the movement will lead to widespread social change. This will not be good enough if voices are still marginalised.
An example of this is what happened in Egypt to the women of Tahrir Square. The women were part of the revolution, or at least they believed that they were. And yet, they were marginalised and silenced, put back into their place after the government had been overthrown.
If we cannot check our privilege within our own meetings, if we cannot genuinely ensure that all voices are heard as we make plans–from anything to the cleaning of an occupied space to a full-scale revolution–how can we expect to create positive, lasting social change?
Just because we say that the consensus model is non-hierarchical and inclusive does not mean that it is.
So how do we fight the group processes that lead to poor decision-making? How do we genuinely make sure that each voice is heard?
There are alternatives, some more palatable than others.
One could be to anonymise everything. The Delphi Method is used frequently in medical decision making to reach a consensus. I have used this method in my own research. It is an iterative process in which the decision-makers fill in questionnaires anonymously, indicating their agreement or disagreement with particular courses of action. A facilitator will then provide anonymous feedback and the decision makers fill in the questionnaires again, eventually converging on an acceptable course of action. A strength of this approach is that the dominant voices are now given equal weight to those afraid to speak out. Another strength is that those with disabilities who cannot access spaces in which meetings are held can still participate. There are two limitations, though. Firstly, it is time-consuming, although arguably traditional consensus decision meetings can be long and drawn-out. A second limitation is resources: rather a lot of paper or webspace and internet is required for the Delphi method.
Or, perhaps, one of the proposed “cures” to groputhink may be useful–talking to others outside the group, formally or informally. A drawback to this is security concerns, but in making decisions regarding something which is safe and legal, surely it is good to get as much divergent opinion as possible.
A final suggestion may be unpalatable to many: giving priority to those who have not yet spoken. It may seem undemocratic to bump a person up the queue, but for those who do not feel empowered to speak, it may make the difference between being heard and not being heard. Affirmative action may be required to ensure that we are truly listening to every voice.
It is important that we become aware with the flaws in the consensus model. It is not good enough that it is “the best we have”. We must address these flaws, and be mindful of them. It is not the panacea of perfect decision-making. It is rooted in group processes and societal forces which allow the loudest and most privileged to express their opinions.
To fight this, knowing our enemy is a good place to start.
I warmly invite comment on this post. There is an alternative; the traditional consensus model is not the best we can ever have. Together, we can find this and make better, more inclusive decisions as a result.
Special thanks to Lisa Ansell and Ellen for great conversations which helped me write this.
Edit: I followed up on some of these thoughts and some things which emerged from the comments here.