First published in September 2002 as an editorial for
Project Management World Today Web Magazine.


Musings Index

Team Decisions: Consensus versus Consent

For some months now we have been engaged in a difficult and controversial volunteer project where the value of the product is distinctly abstract. The details of the project are not material, but the manner of reaching decisions has come under scrutiny. The issue is how will the team reach agreement on contentious issues?

There are various ways of course. The team leader can:

  1. Issue an edict
  2. Try to reach consensus, or
  3. Try to reach consent

An authoritarian edict appears to be out of the question where the continued active contributions of team members are necessary for the successful conclusion of the project. So that leaves the issue of consensus or consent.

In "Managing the Project Team", the author Vijay Verma quotes Roskin as follows[1] "... there are four basic decision styles normally used by project managers: Command, consultation, consensus, and coin flip." Verma goes on to explain that when quality is more important than acceptance, "command" style in which the project manager makes the decision is appropriate provided that he or she has the requisite knowledge and experience. When quality and acceptance are both important, the PM should use a consultative style. When acceptance is more important than quality, then use consensus in which all team members are involved and reach agreement. Coin flip, on the other hand, speaks for itself.

According to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary:

"Consensus" means general agreement; judgment arrived at by most of those concerned; group solidarity in sentiment and belief

"Consent" on the other hand means to agree; to give assent or approval; to be in concord in opinion or sentiment

Not entirely helpful to us since half the team then felt that consensus meant everyone agreeing in principle, regardless of the detail, while consent meant that the team could not move forward unless everyone gave their approval. In the latter case, that means that every team member has a right of veto. The other half of the team felt just the reverse to be true since a consent ruling would be by majority vote.

According to Dilenschneider,[2] "The power of consent is gaining significance and is a rapidly emerging force of importance to leaders, just as consensus is waning. Consent can be driven by genuine humanitarian motives, but can also be driven by self-interest, or both, especially when consent hinges on the self-interest side of humanitarian or humanistic concerns. However, viewed from the perspective of members of a project team living in a world of self-interest, they are more efficient than ever in deciding what is in their own self-interest. They will say: First give me a good reason to buy into such-and-such a decision.

"Therefore, in the interests of effectiveness or efficiency, consensus will remain a vital tool for dealing with visionary and strategic issues, requiring more effort spent in gathering intelligence. However, an increasing number of performance issues will be determined by consent-style opinion voting within the team."

Consistent with Dilenschneider's thinking, it appears that "consensus" is more effective and preferred in the conceptualizing phase of the project in order to win broad commitment, but "consent" is more efficient in the remaining phases because of its more favorable influence on the project's constraints of time and cost. Table 1 shows a comparison between consensus and consent in this context.



• Best for nurturing a business enterprise

• Best for projects, especially when people want answers

• Is interactive, dynamic

• Uses established relationships

• Requires near-universal agreement

• Targets individual specialist opinions

• Is inherently slow

• Can convert or respond to a crisis quickly

• Also has more subtle impacts

• Has clearly defined impacts

• Must accommodate fringe elements

• Allows overriding of unreasonable adversaries

• Permits "voyage of discovery" and attitude cultivation

• Requires reliable information gathering and "homework"

• Satisfies mutual and self-interests

• Focuses on project objectives

Table 1: Consensus versus Consent

To be clear on the meaning of these terms in the project context, the Wideman Comparative Glossary of Project Management Terms states as follows:


In project team decision-making, full agreement within the group of a course of action including all its details. This approach requires negotiation within the group of all the precise details. While leading to a higher level of "buy-in", the result tends to be equivalent to the "lowest common denominator". Negotiations may be protracted and the final course not necessarily optimal and in the best interests of the project's goals. (See also Consent.) [D00288]


In project team decision-making, acquiescence or agreement to a course of action commonly characterized by comfort with the general direction though not necessarily with all the specific details. In project decision-making, consent is considered a more practical approach than consensus. [D00289]

Therefore, in our project we adopted a "consent" approach, as defined above, in all but the original start of the project where we needed "consensus".

1. Verma, Managing the Project Team p. 178
2. Dilenschneider, R. L., A Briefing for Leaders, Harper Business, 1992, p 107

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