Over several days in early January, 2023, Republican Kevin McCarthy lost 14 consecutive ballots in his bid to become Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives but eventually squeaked out enough support to be elected on the 15th ballot. To do so, McCarthy had to grant major concessions to a small group of members of his own party in exchange for their votes. The spectacle that played out on the House floor highlighted key challenges in group negotiation and decision making.
From Majority Rule to Consensus Building
Majority rulemaking decisions based on which parties get the most votes—is a hallmark of many democracies. But in most organizations, majority rule can be an inefficient and ineffective form of decision making.
As Lawrence E. Susskind and Jeffrey L. Cruikshank write in their book Breaking Robert’s Rules: The New Way to Run Your Meeting, Build Consensus, and Get Results, “Getting 51 percent of the votes usually gives you the right to call the shots, at least for the time being.” But when an election leaves the minority unhappy, “the result is instability,” according to the authors. The minority may register its dissatisfaction by trying to sabotage decisions, perhaps by taking complaints to the public or the press, or going to court.
Moreover, majority rule does not necessarily “steer a group toward practical, efficient, affordable, or broad-gauge solutions,” write Susskind and Cruikshank. A winner-take-all result often excludes good ideas from losing parties and results in extreme, unsustainable decisions marked by group conflict.
Coalition Building in Statehouses
At the same time that McCarthy was acceding to the demands of hard-right members of his party, Republicans in several state houses of representatives were taking different approaches to choosing a leader, Thomas B. Edsall writes in the New York Times. These approaches suggest ways to work around the limitations of majority rule through group negotiation.
In Ohio, a bipartisan coalition of Democrats and Republicans united to defeat a hard-line conservative, Derek Merrin, in his bid for Speaker. Merrin had won majority support from the House Republican caucus but was defeated by the bipartisan coalition’s more mainstream Republican, Jason Stephens, who promised to work across party lines. The bipartisan maneuvering was “a rarity in this polarized era,” writes Edsall.
Similarly, in Pennsylvania, where party control of the House hinged on the results of several upcoming special elections, some Republicans joined with Democrats to elect a centrist Democrat, Mark Rozzi, as Speaker. Rozzi vowed to be the state’s “first independent Speaker of the House.” These shifts in Ohio and Pennsylvania may reflect calls from voters for more bipartisanship and moderation.
Meanwhile, mainstream Republicans in the Republican-controlled South Carolina House of Representatives reportedly aimed to limit challenges from the 19 members of the far-right South Carolina Freedom Caucus by requiring caucus members to agree not to campaign against Republican incumbents or leak discussions of closed-door caucus meetings. Those who refused to sign on to the rules would be ineligible for the caucus, “effectively relegating them to legislative marginalization,” writes Edsall. One conservative publication criticized the demand as “an incumbent protection ultimatum—accompanied by a muzzle.” While the conflict has remained out of public view, most Freedom Caucus members reportedly have refused to sign on. As the story suggests, attempts to marginalize minority factions can backfire and stymie effective group leadership.
Consensus Building in Group Negotiation
Many organizations, from corporations to nonprofits to government agencies, can improve group negotiation and decision making by switching from majority rule to a consensus-building approach.
Consensus building “requires a commitment to seek overwhelming agreement among all relevant stakeholders,” writes Susskind in his book Good for You, Great for Me: Finding the Trading Zone and Winning at Win-Win Negotiation. “The result is a negotiated decision that is as close to unanimous as possible. From an organizational standpoint, consensus-building techniques help groups as a whole win . . . to reach the broadest agreement possible, not just one that is barely acceptable to a majority.”
Susskind outlines a five-step process for consensus building, which includes:
- Convening the group, setting goals, and fostering a problem-solving dialogue, perhaps with the aid of a neutral facilitator.
- Clarifying responsibilities and ensuring everyone involved understands all proposals must aim to meet the needs of everyone at the table—rather than representing only the will of the majority.
- Deliberating and brainstorming value-creating options by drawing on “the best joint fact-finding information available” and “a broad range of possible ways to respond to everyone’s concerns.”
- Reaching a decision not by voting but by “continually adding to a package of recommendations aimed at meeting everyone’s interests.” If someone opposes a proposal, they must suggest ways to make the overall package acceptable to them—“without making it worse for anyone else.”
- Implementing the decision effectively by staying in close contact with other parties after the agreement is reached.
According to Susskind, consensus building produces better long-term results than majority rule because it gives all parties a voice in the group negotiation. In doing so, it increases the odds that everyone will work to ensure that the final outcome succeeds.
What lessons have you learned from decision making in group negotiation?