Preventing “Tyranny of the Minority”

Posted on December 7, 2007 by

Author: Tree Bressen
Published in Communities Magazine Issue #137

Q: How do we prevent “Tyranny of the Minority?”
Laird Schaub responds:
Consensus certainly gives minorities power that they don’t have in voting—in the extreme, one person alone can stop a decision from going forward. When people talk about “tyranny,” it’s shorthand for abusing power, where the fear is that an individual (or small group) will use their power to block for the purpose of protecting a personal agenda without regard for the rest of the group.
Does this happen? You bet! Can it be prevented? Not with certainty, yet there is a lot a group can do to safeguard against the improper use (or threatened use) of blocks. The key is developing a group culture in which both consensus and power are well understood and respected. Let’s take them one at a time.
Abuse, or “tyranny,” is far less likely if the group defines a legitimate block as something that must be tied to a sense that the proposed agreement will violate a common value or existing group agreement—that is, a sense that the proposal is a mistake for the group—as opposed to objections based on personal preferences, however strongly held. Coupled with that, the group needs to develop a culture in which its members are trained in consensus (it’s hard to use a system well if you don’t fully understand it). Further, they need to be able to examine a block with grace, exhibiting genuine curiosity about why the blocker thinks the proposal is bad for the group, as well as compassion for the feeling of isolation that often accompanies standing alone. By extending caring consideration to the blocker, the group will go a long way toward diffusing the possibility of reactive (or even vindictive) responses from the blocker when asked to explain their position.
Power can be abused in any decision-making system, and consensus is no exception. In a healthy group, blocks are quite rare—because healthy groups rarely develop proposals that haven’t already addressed blocking concerns. If you’re seeing a pattern of certain people blocking frequently, there is probably an underlying problem, and it might be symptomatic of power abuse. There are innocent possibilities also, so you have to be careful.
On the one hand, the blocker may be having consistent trouble understanding or working constructively with the process, or perhaps it’s time to revisit the common values— the blocker and the group may no longer belong together. On the other hand, the blocker may be inappropriately looking for attention, or pushing a hidden agenda. There is a big difference between tyranny and confusion. Try not to mix them up.
Beatrice Briggs responds:
No, it means sharing power. To effectively use consensus process, I must recognize that there is always more than one solution to every problem and that my preferred solution is not necessarily the best—even if a comforting number of others share my point of view.
For those of us who are used to being in charge, to getting our way, or to belonging to the power elite, it is frustrating—sometimes infuriating—to “lose” because someone blocks a decision we support. If the block is truly invalid, challenge it. If the person blocking is a “chronic blocker,” educate her—and the rest of the group—in the principles and practice of blocks. But if the block is legitimate, i.e., firmly rooted in the ethics of the group, then humbly accept the possibility that the “minority” is seeing something that the rest do not.
Practice saying, “You may be right,” and let go of the need to always be right yourself. Learn to trust that, if the group truly has a heart and a purpose, things will work out in the long run. Know that this single decision is not the end of the world. Commit yourself to supporting the decision of the “tyrannical minority.” After all, one day you could be the person blocking.
Tree Bressen responds:
Yes, it is possible for consensus to lend itself to the “tyranny of the minority,” and frankly i think that does happen far too often. However, it’s not inherent to the method, and your group doesn’t ever have to operate that way!
I think the core of avoiding or fixing this problem is to focus on the spirit underlying consensus. Ask questions like: “What approach to this situation would be most life-serving?” “How can we maintain a sense of vitality and forward movement in our group?” “What is most important here?” “How can we resolve this issue in a way that most fully reflects our values as a community?”
I think the groups that are most likely to fall into a tyranny of the minority usually have one or both of the following tendencies: (a) over-emphasis on technical correctness of procedures, such as quorums or notice periods before decisions; and/or (b) avoidance of difficult conversations among group members (for example, people are afraid to confront or seriously disagree with founding or important members).
A tyranny of the minority can only happen when others allow it, so those others need to step up and take responsibility. For example, someone who wants to change a policy can start by conducting some form of survey of the membership to see how much support there is for the change. If three-fourths of the group want to make the change, the supposed tyrants (often hard-working community members who may themselves feel oppressed by group members in other ways) will usually come along, even if a bit grudgingly. Even better is if you can enlist them as your allies in making the change, requesting their support and advice.

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