Breaking ranks with consensus thinking about consensus

Many a boardroom discussion is prolonged in hope of achieving unanimity on an important decision. And nonprofit CEOs and board chairs are often chosen and evaluated on their skill as consensus builders. In fact, if there’s a Holy Grail of the nonprofit sector, it’s full consensus.

standout_student_sleeping_in_class_15709But not so fast, cautions an article in the latest issue of MIT Sloan Management Review. Authors Felipe Csaszar and Alfredo Enrione state that striving for a high level of consensus can actually hurt your cause, at least in some instances.

The research duo “have found that how a decision is made can significantly affect the outcome of that decision.” In other words, there’s not one best way to make the big decisions, with everything else a disappointing compromise.

As the MIT SMR article explains, boards have at least three choices in how they decide.

  • There are times when holding out for full consensus is the right way to go.
  • In other instances, majority rule can result in a better decision.
  • Sometimes the board is wise to kick the can back to the CEO.

“Like a car, a decision-making group needs to shift into different gears depending on the situation.”

Which is why Csaszar and Enrione identify deciding how to decide – how we will reason together – as leadership’s most important decision. They base their argument on “a little-known but very important statistical result that tells you what decision rule is most likely to lead to the best decision.”


I encourage you to read the article for the details of the statistical result, including definitions and illustrations of errors of commission (pursuing bad choices) and errors of omission (missing out on good things). Until you get there, here are three points for your consideration:

  1. Although management literature most often identifies the leader (or leaders) as decision maker, “an important role of the person leading a decision-making team is to know how to combine multiple opinions – in effect to become a decision manager.”
  2. “The key responsibility of the chair is to lead the board so that, collectively, the board can make the best possible decisions for the [organization].”
  3. “An understanding of commission and omission errors gives the chair a powerful lever to improve the board’s chances of making the right decision.”


At first reading, Csaszar’s and Enrione’s work appears to rule out prayer and God-centered discernment in boardroom deliberations, with reliance on statistical results trumping Spirit-inspired discussion. However, that need not be the outcome.

If we believe that science and faith co-exist (which I’m assuming you do), the question isn’t if seeking God’s direction has a place in our decision-making, but rather, at what point.

Specific to the model proposed in the MIT SMR article, I believe that discernment – the act of fervently, prayerfully seeking God’s wisdom and will — is essential to deciding “which type of error would do the most harm to the organization.” If a board gets this foundational decision right, everything that follows goes better.

So whence discernment? It best comes early in the decision-making timeline, separated from the question of how a decision will ultimately be made. To be sure, prayer and discerning conversation continues throughout the whole of the decision-making process, but with a shift in focus/purpose along the way.

In the beginning, we pray for clarity in assessing risks. After risks are identified, we pray for courage to pursue the course to which the board has committed itself – whether the commitment was by unanimity, majority, or delegation.

The Holy Grail – the high prize to which God is calling your board — isn’t full consensus. It’s all-in faithfulness. If board members agree on this, “it will improve the group’s overall decision-making – which will be of no small benefit.”

For more on boards and decision-making, see:

When your board comes to a fork in the road . . .

The board’s role in strategic change

There are no small data, just small users

What's your take on this topic?

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