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Christoph Haug, PhD
Senior lecturer at the University of Gothenburg

The role of consensus in meetings and why good preparation matters

Decision making does not haphazardly happen in meetings. Getting to that crucial moment takes planning, preparing, and understanding meeting processes. Unclarity on terms like "consensus", "unanimity", "planning" and "preparing" can lead to confusion among participants. We have invited Dr. Christoph Haug, a senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, to share with us his knowledge on meetings, and in particular, on the concept of consensus in meetings.


Sherpany: In your research, you explore the formation of consensus in meetings. What drove you to study this topic?

Christoph Haug: My initial interest was in how a very diverse social movement, the global justice movement, deliberates and makes decisions. My aim was to find out how these activists could work together despite significant cultural and political differences. It turns out that consensus was very important for that, but, ironically, there were quite different ideas about what consensus actually means. At the time, I was not interested in management meetings because I assumed that these have little in common with my activist meetings. But when I started reading the works of David Seidl and others who were researching managers and their meetings, I became  aware of the similarities in our research. I realised that even though we were looking at very different people, in different contexts, the problems they were facing in meetings, and trying to collaborate, were very much the same.


Sherpany: What tactics can directors of organisations use to achieve consensus in their leadership meetings?

Christoph Haug: To start with, it is important to be aware of the difference between unanimity and consensus. When people say they have reached consensus, they often think they have reached unanimity. The difference is that in the case of unanimity everyone agrees, and in the case of consensus nobody disagrees. One might say that is the same thing, but it is not - if everybody agrees then each participant has made up their mind and expressed their agreement. In a consensus situation, some might agree to what has been said, some might disagree, and some may be indifferent, but the thing is: it does not matter as long as nobody actually expresses their disagreement. The fascinating thing about consensus is that you can have a room of, say twenty people, where only one person agrees to what has been decided, while the others simply do not care, or do not have an opinion, but if no one objects to the decision, it is a consensus decision. But it would be a mistake to believe it is unanimous.

Unanimity is very difficult to achieve - even when only three people are involved - so that is what makes consensus so attractive. I suppose that, at the top organisational level, there is usually a majority rule, at least on paper, but in practice, you often observe that the people involved are nevertheless trying to reach consensus. But why bother with consensus when you can simply let the majority decide? I would say, there are at least two obvious reasons why people prefer consensus rather than majority voting.

One reason being that nobody likes to be part of a losing minority, and consensus makes that minority (if it exists) invisible. There are no losers in consensus, so if you do not like the decision but let it happen anyway, at least you have not lost a vote. The other reason is that calling for a vote has a degree of formality that often feels unnatural, almost disruptive in a friendly, collegial atmosphere. If the meeting is not very formal from the start, nobody wants to become formal in order to make a decision. Also, calling for a vote is also a way of saying: I am not willing to discuss with you any longer. So it is not a particularly friendly move. Consensus, on the other hand, works without the use of any formal rules. It just works naturally and we use it all the time, also with friends and family. 

But there is a problem with using consensus in meetings where the by-laws stipulate majority decisions. The problem is that the majority rule can be invoked at any time to enforce the will of the majority and this limits the willingness of the majority to really engage in dialogue and find a common solution. In such a situation consensus easily becomes a tool for domination: the minority is not only forced to yield to the majority but – adding insult to injury – is also expected to defend the decision as a joint one because it was made by consensus. The only way to avoid this "shadow of the majority rule" is to formally stipulate which decisions are made by consensus and to state what that actually means. Consensus only works if the majority does not have an easy way out.


Sherpany: Do you believe good preparation/planning of a meeting influences the reaching of consensus during meetings, and perhaps even influences the decision making?

Christoph Haug: I think it is important to distinguish between planning and preparing a meeting. Planning is done by one person (or perhaps a few) and it is aimed at controlling the meeting, making it predictable. Preparing is something all participants can do and it treats the process and outcome of the meeting open. Like when you are preparing for a sports match. You cannot plan a match, but you can prepare for it. And I think meetings should be treated exactly like that. If you approach meetings with a planning mindset, there is a risk that you make meeting participants wonder 'why am I here, why are we discussing this?' because they will think the Chairman is steering the meeting clearly in a direction, and apparently there is no alternative anyway. You do not need a meeting to rubber-stamp decisions made elsewhere.

This brings me to something I think it is very important in understanding the significance of meetings in organisational life: a meeting that is so well planned that you know what the output is going to be it is not really a meeting. In order to be a real meeting, there needs to be an element of uncertainty, a possibility for surprise, and I would claim that every meeting by nature has it because when people sit together, you never know for sure what is going to happen, and that makes meetings interesting. As much as you try to plan, people can stand up and say something that changes everything. So, of course certain aspects of a meeting need to be planned.


'It is good if people know where and at what time the meeting starts and having an agenda certainly helps.' 


But I would suggest to think in terms of preparation rather than planning. It goes without saying that the preparation of a meeting affects the meeting itself, that is trivial.

Recently, I chaired a meeting for which I had prepared documents for participants to read, and I had assumed they everybody had read them before the meeting. In the meeting, people were constantly driving the discussion in another direction and they claimed that we could not make that decision now for some absurd reason that made no sense to me. At some point, I figured out that they had not read the documents and that this was why they were avoiding the decision, but they did not want to admit that, of course. So, although I was well prepared because I was unsure of where the meeting was going to go, I was not expecting people to come unprepared in that way. I guess we have all been in this kind of situation and being unprepared can also be a strategy for people to sabotage certain decisions without being held accountable for it because they can say "oh, it was not clear that this document was so important". So it might be better to clarify which documents are really important to read, and which one can be skimmed, but then again you do not want to say that because, ideally all documents should be read.


Sherpany: Many organisations are turning to an agile meeting culture to respond faster to the rapidly changing business environment. In your view, what value does agility bring to the culture of meetings, especially at the leadership level?

Christoph Haug: Peter Drucker shared the idea that organisations do not need meetings. According to this view, we have them only because organisations are not perfect so that we constantly need to fix things. If organisations worked perfectly, we would not need meetings. If you think like that, you will treat meetings as a necessary evil, something to ultimately get rid of. However, meeting researchers and people studying organisational communication like myself share exactly the opposite idea. We say: there would not be any organisation if we did not have meetings.

In software development, agile is a clearly defined method for running a specific kind of meeting. Since it has been exported to other industries, it has become something of a buzz word and I am not sure what exactly it means. I see it as part of a broader trend of what I call "the quest for better meetings" and it is certainly a good thing that organisations start thinking about their meetings and meeting cultures but I do not think that agile is some kind of silver bullet. If agile is a way of limiting what can be said and done at any particular moment in a meeting, then this surely has the benefit of reducing "noise" and increasing control and many meeting participants will appreciate this. But the question is: whose control? There is great potential in various meeting technologies for decentralising control, for example by facilitating shared note taking or managing the speakers' list. But as I mentioned earlier, people often dislike formal procedures and technology that seems to impose such procedures.

Which brings me back to uncertainty and the temptation of planning the meeting. Today, we live in uncertain times, and that is why we have meetings. We need to meet in order to reassure ourselves on the direction we are going, and to reduce uncertainty by making sense of the situation. It is not rare that those who prepare the meeting well foresee the solutions, but if the Chair does not allow participants to come to the conclusion themselves, through interaction in the meeting, this foresight will not be of much use. And if you truly allow them to draw their own conclusions, that means that you allow them to draw unexpected conclusions. You allow yourself (and everyone) to be surprised. If meetings are supposed to absorb uncertainty, you need to let the meeting do its job, rather than trying to solve the problem beforehand. Can agile methodologies and technologies contribute to that? I do not know, but if we had the time to look more closely at any specific example, this is the kind of question I would ask.


Sherpany: How can meeting-tailored technology boost the quality of leadership meetings?

Christoph Haug: An interesting and challenging aspect of these technologies is that, in order for them to work, you need to transform the way people experience them, and the way they look at meetings. People do not usually recall the details of their meetings and pay little attention to the actual meeting process. Yet, meeting technologies are often designed to take care of various details of the meeting process that most meeting participants take for granted. So, in order for people to be able to assess and appreciate the potential benefit of these technologies, they need to start thinking about their meetings, how they experience them and what causes those experiences. As long as you blame a bad meeting on the personality of the Chair, you are not going to change how the meeting is organised.

The growing meeting services industry is trying to raise this kind of consciousness by using terms like "meeting design" or "meeting culture" and I am curious to see to what extent this is going to increase the quality of meetings. At the moment, I see a lot of advice and tools online but I am not aware of any scientific studies that tell us to what extent these are actually being used and if they are used with what effect. It remains a question for research, one that I am planning to investigate.

Christoph Haug, PhD
Christoph Haug, PhD
Senior lecturer at the University of Gothenburg
Christoph Haug is a senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden. He has initiated the international Meeting Science Symposium, an interdisciplinary conference series for meeting researchers as well as other meeting experts.

He maintains kunsido.net, an online discussion forum about meetings and conferences.

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