Why Blocking Consensus Should Not Be Allowed
I hold the view that the individual's “right” to block an action undermines the philosophy and intent of the consensus process by giving undue power to individuals instead of placing the greatest power in the group as a whole. This view is based on seven years of study and of practice in consensus decision making.
In my view, the definition of blocking as an act which an individual can consciously and rightfully choose reinforces the practice of individual solutions to group problems. An ultimate effect of blocking is that an entire group can be obstructed from action due to the will of one person. Allowing for and/or encouraging this possibility produces conditions which may lead to anti-democratic situations. Three of these situations are occurrences all too commonly seen in consensus groups: tyranny by the minority, conflict avoidance, and giving more power to already-powerful individuals.
When any group or individual is given an ultimate power in a situation, they will (and should) use that power when they need it most. They are most likely to use that power in situations which are most threatening to their interests — where they have the most to lose. Just as the practice of majority voting makes it easy for the majority not to listen to the minority on issues which they feel strongly about and do not need the minority to pass, the individual's right to block (IRB) can easily allow a condition of minority rule on issues which are important to an individual or small group. This minority need not convince the majority or the rest of the group in order to bring influence to bear, but can merely object and block the actions of the majority. Giving individuals the right to block encourages those in the minority to take an individualistic approach, rather than a collective approach to solving collective problems. It also allows for the abuse of the “right,” since it is very easy for individuals to use it to foster their own individual interests at the expense of the goals and needs of the group as a whole.
The individual's right to block is in effect giving the individual veto power over the group. This veto power may not be used often, but you can bet it will be used at the most critical times — when the issues are the hottest and the stakes are the highest. These are the times when, if allowed, individuals will resort to individualistic problem-solving methods over working things out with the group. There is also a high likelihood of. pushing for personal interests at the expense of group goals.
Depending upon the nature of the group and the issues at hand, IRB may also encourage conflict avoidance. IRB does not have to be used overtly to effectively block consensus. The threat of blocking alone is enough, in many cases, to influence the outcome of a decision. I see this happening time and time again in consensus groups — much more often than the overt minority rule situation described above. A group, after some
experience with its members' opinions, may begin to anticipate what it can reach consensus on and what will be opposed by a person or small group. The group falls into avoiding conflict, difficulty, or long drawn-out discussions by not even considering those options which it knows will bring about objections by these people. Instead, the group may opt for a more comfortable, easier-to-get compromise solution, or the status quo — which may not be the best decision— but which doesn't offend or threaten a particular subgroup or individual.
Bolstering Powerful Individuals
Another problem with IRB is that assertive individuals and powerful interest groups are the ones most likely to use blocking. One of the strongest arguments in favor of IRB is that individuals who, under conditions of majority rule, would not be listened to, are listened to in consensus because they have the power to block any group decision. In my experience working with consensus, I have not seen a single occurrence in which a non-assertive, timid individual had the gall to block an otherwise consensual decision of the group. In all instances, the individuals who have used blocking either had strong personalities, had powerful positions within the group, or represented powerful Interests outside the group. Instead of serving to equalize power among individuals within a group, IRB gives more power to powerful individuals.
I think that an individual's right to block plays into our society's encouragement and reinforcement of individualism — that is, protecting our own personal interests at the expense of the interests of others and the group as a whole. It can also contribute to conflict avoidance by providing a disincentive to the group to get into situations in which blocking is likely to occur. And because non-powerful individuals will rarely block an entire group's will, IRB contributes to lessening their power in relation to the more powerful members who do have the confidence to block a group's actions.
As I see it, the group as a whole must have, in the end, the final power over any individual — not the other way around — in order to foster working together in an environment which brings about synthesis of opinion and ultimately true consensus. In order that consensus be a truly collective and cooperative mode, at no time should the group's power be subordinated to that of one individual.
I believe that the entire perspective on blocking should be changed from an individual view to a group view. That is, instead of blocking being viewed as a conscious individual act based on a justified right, it should be looked upon as a sign that a group is not reaching consensus. Blocking should not be seen as a skill to be taught and advocated to individuals (e.g., when should an individual block, what responsibilities come with blocking, etc. ), but rather as a problem of the group for which there must be group skills to solve.
by Elaine Nesterick, pg 33-35, Building United Judgment: A Handbook for Consensus Decion Making, CCR(editor), 1981