Let's begin our conversation around consensus by dispelling a common myth. Consensus does not mean that everyone is in agreement. Consensus does not mean that everyone is enthusiastic about a particular course of action. Consensus means that a group of people has come up with a decision or plan that everyone can live with. That means that there may be people who can live with the decision who are nonetheless not thrilled about it.
Consensus is powerful because it builds commitment through discussion. Here is a simple "five-finger" method you can use to experiment with consensus in your work team. Once a plan or decision is suggested (often after some discussion) each person holds up a hand to indicate their level of agreement.
Five fingers (open hand) - I agree
Four Fingers - I agree with some mild reservations, but I don't want to stop the team because of my reservations.
Three Fingers - I can live with it. I have some concerns, but if we move forward I will support the efforts of the group.
Two Fingers - I disagree. I think this is an inadequate decision and I feel uncomfortable with it. If we go forward, I want my disagreement to be formally noted.
One Finger - Veto - I want to block this decision.
General Consensus usually means that everyone present has at least two fingers up, and that the majority have more fingers up. A uniform showing of twos and threes indicate lukewarm support, and probably is a signal that getting a lot of energy or action around implementation is a problem.
Absolute Consensus means that everyone is in agreement. This generally means all 4s or 5s. If there is a divisive issue which is going to require full team support to be successful, making a commitment to reach absolute consensus means that unless there is a decision that everyone agrees with and can support, no action will be taken.
Using the five finger method provides a quick tally of where everyone is at. After the initial discussion about the proposed decision, take a count. If the response is generally positive (mostly 4s and 5s, with some lower numbers) ask those with lower numbers to explain their concerns. They should not be made to feel defensive. Consensus is about shared understanding - not power plays, so as manager/facilitator your role is to help the team understand each other's points of view and share ideas. If you find yourself tempted to go with a "majority rules" approach, consensus is not a good method for you.
If you get lots of low numbers, you can discuss them, but the chances are the proposed action will have very low support. If consensus is very low, you may wish to explore other options.
Enlightened Homework: Think about the kinds of conversations you have in your work team. Are there any times when consensus might be appropriate? What would it be like to propose consensus based decision making? What do you think would be different if you tried it?