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Elizabeth Fuss Arnott, SPHR  I have been working in Human Resources for 23 years. Since 2011, I have been certified as a Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR).  I have a BA in English and a Master of Jurisprudence in Labor and Employment Law from Tulane Law School. I live in the Pacific Northwest with my husband Luke and our cat, Poirot. I write about HR, non-profits, the art of managing people and Neurodiversity in the workplace. I'm available for employment, contract work, consulting, coaching and training virtually and in the Portland, OR area. Please email me at for more information. 

  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Arnott, SPHR

Leading by Consensus is Not Inclusion

Updated: Feb 16, 2023

It should have been a two-week project at most. Updating an employee handbook is usually a job done by HR or an employment attorney, and usually requires maybe one or two approvals above that. But this company had been working on their handbook for two years. That's right. Two. Years. Why was it taking so long?

This company had broad inclusion policies. Everyone had a voice in everything. No matter what. The Handbook Committee consisted of six to eight people, depending on the turnover. Most of the people on the committee had no training in HR or employment law.

The committee met once a month. When they reached a consensus between them on a policy, the policy was then routed to each person in the company leadership for input. The policies would then be sent back to the committee for further edits and approval. They went round and round. And nothing was accomplished. In the meantime, employees had the old outdated handbook for reference which had incomplete and inaccurate information.

An employee handbook is important. It's important because it contains baseline, basic policies that companies are required or recommended to have. It's not important because employees read it frequently. They don't. Hardly ever. It's not a document that determines your culture. It can reflect your culture for sure, but as I said, employees do not read employee handbooks on a regular basis. Do you really want or need to spend hundreds of work hours over a period of two years to create a document that is likely not legally compliant (given the lack of expertise on the committee) and will likely have little to no effect on your employees' experience?

While giving a voice to employees is important, it matters where and how you use these voices.

A common misuse of leadership by consensus is hiring. You want employees and managers who will interact with the position to meet them and have input. Do you involve everyone? Is it for input? Or is it for decision making? Input is important. But very rarely are you going to get consensus on a decision when you are involving 15-20 people.

Inclusion does not mean that decision making is not the leader's responsibility. It's the leader's duty to make the decision, equally weighing the input from the diverse voices that she is listening to.

Here are a some of the common pitfalls of leading by consensus:

1. The loudest voices often sway or drown out other voices that may not be heard - making the process not so inclusive.

2. The same people tend to participate, making the process not so inclusive after all.

3. Lack of productivity and action because of the necessity to have committees and/or so many approvals to make all decisions.

4. Lack of leadership because leaders are deferring decision making to the masses, which are often indecisive as a group.

And here are a few ways to be inclusive, without using consensus decision making:

1. Solicit input in a variety of ways: talking to people individually, surveys, focus groups, etc. Don't depend on just one method - your employee base is diverse and they will not all respond to the same method.

2. Solicit input on a variety of things - get to know what your employee base is seeing, feeling, talking about. Use that information to inform your decisions.

3. Solicit input after a decision has been made - and let that input inform your future decisions.

You can be inclusive by listening to all voices. But that doesn't mean that you need to defer decision making to all voices. Be the leader your company needs - decisive and informed.


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