Effective Practices : Governance


Decision Making Processes
Governance Section 6

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1. Many Waldorf Schools make group decisions through a consensus process. For each of the major decision making bodies in your schools please describe the process by which the school expects decisions to be made (e.g. consensus, majority vote, other).
a. Board of Trustees
b. College of Teachers or other pedagogical decision making body
c. Faculty
d. Operational or Administrative Committee
e. Standing Committees (e.g. Building and Grounds, Tuition Assistance, Development, etc.)
f. Other

2. Has your school formally agreed to the decision making processes used in each of these groups, or is each body or committee left to make decisions in the manner in which it sees fit?
3. Why has your school chosen to use the method(s) described above for group decision making? What is the philosophy or thinking that led your school to making this choice for decision making processes?
4. What is working particularly well in your process(es) of group decision making?
5. If there were something you could change with regard to the way in which groups make decision at your school, what would it be and why?

GOV 6-1

Many Waldorf Schools make group decisions through a consensus process. For each of the major decision making bodies in your schools please describe the process by which the school expects decisions to be made (e.g. consensus, majority vote, other).
a. Board of Trustees
b. College of Teachers or other pedagogical decision making body
c. Faculty
d. Operational or Administrative Committee
e. Standing Committees (e.g. Building and Grounds, Tuition Assistance, Development, etc.)
f. Other

There are five forms of group decision making that were in use in the schools we studied. These forms are:

  • Voting, either a simple majority vote or voting with a 2/3 majority required for passage,
  • Consensus decision making,
  • Modified consensus decision making,
  • Sense of the meeting, and
  • Collaborative consensus.

The group most likely to use voting to make decisions is the Board of Trustees. Most Boards use a simple majority vote to make decisions, although some Boards do use either consensus or a 2/3 majority vote. It was interesting to note that in those schools in which voting is used by the trustees a point was made that issues are typically worked through so that the votes are unanimous. It is rare that decisions are made by a Board of Trustees that all of the members cannot support. One school noted that the general faculty makes decisions by voting as a result of their bylaws. The faculty members of this school are considered the “members of the corporation” and as such they are required to work using a simple majority vote. However, the College of Teachers in this school uses consensus as its decision making process.

Some schools have chosen to use a 2/3 majority in most of their decision making. These schools reserve full consensus for only a few situations — those that have a significant long term effect on the school such as a decision to open a high school or to relocate the school. Hiring of new colleagues also requires full consensus, while termination decisions do not. In schools that use the 2/3 majority approach it was noted that it is especially important to listen carefully to dissenting views so that decisions can be as well informed as possible, and that in small groups or committees an extra effort is made to reach unanimity in the vote.

Most schools use consensus decision making or a modified version of consensus in the pedagogical circles in the school. Consensus decision making requires all members present to either stand in support of a decision or to step aside (pass) and allow a decision to go forward without their positive support. A member who chooses to block or stand in the way of a decision does so in the belief that the decision being made will have significant long term detrimental effects on the school. Taking a stand like this is a rare occasion as it is seldom that an individual can be so sure of his insight that he presumes to see more clearly than every other member present in the room. Situations like this are expected to occur just a few times in sometimes life.

One school described its modified consensus process in this way: “If an issue is presented for decision an attempt to reach consensus is tried first. If consensus is reached then the issue is approved. If an item is blocked by a small number then the issue is brought back for additional conversation and a second attempt is made at reaching consensus. Items which are still not passed are brought back for a third and final attempt at consensus, and then must be passed by a 3/4 vote. The College adopted this approach many years ago when it had the experience that a very few people were using the block to create a tyranny of the minority and that as a result important issues facing the school were not being addressed. ”

A sense of the meeting is often used to make decisions in committees and small groups such as the administrative committee. These groups are too small to engage in a formal consensus process, and it is easily apparent when there are significant unresolved issues in the group. The net impact is that there is consensus in the decision as schools recognize that if a member has strong dissenting views continued work is needed on the issue rather than forcing an expeditious decision by voting.

One school in our study has a committee structure that allows very little decision making to be done in the committees. This school asks their committees to work in collaborative consensus. In this approach a committee will come to consensus around a proposal and then send it to their sponsoring body for approval. They work collaboratively with their sponsoring body so that much of the work to investigate and draft a proposal is done in the small group, but the larger body is able to stand in full consensus behind the decision.

GOV 6-2

Has your school formally agreed to the decision making processes used in each of these groups, or is each body or committee left to make decisions in the manner in which it sees fit?

In every school with good governance that we studied the processes by which decisions are made in each group or body of the school are well defined, understood by all participants, and well supported in the broader community.

Frequently the bylaws of the school dictate the method of decision making that will be used by the Board of Trustees. Most bylaws are developed using traditional business formats and require voting in all decisions by the trustees. In cases where school Boards are now using a different approach there has often been a conscious decision at some point to amend the bylaws to reflect the values of the group.

The written mandates given to committees typically spells out the decision making approach that the group is expected to use, and the College of Teachers and general faculty often have written descriptions of their decision making process in the school’s employee handbook.

GOV 6-3

Why has your school chosen to use the method(s) described above for group decision making? What is the philosophy or thinking that led your school to making this choice for decision making processes?

Schools reported that their decision making processes have often been achieved as a result of frustrating experiences with large group decision making. For example a school which uses a modified consensus process recognized that one or two people were consistently using their blocking privileges to hold the whole group from making important decisions. The school settled on a three week process which allows those with dissenting ideas to state their perspectives several times before allowing decisions to be made that reflect the wisdom of the larger group. The school has an expectation that decisions that are made by a 3/4 majority vote will be spoken about positively by all participants and that those with dissenting points of view will be appreciative of their opportunities to speak out rather than undermining the effectiveness of a decision by adopting an attitude of, “Don’t blame me — I didn’t vote for it!” The modified consensus process allows this school to work with the thought that there is wisdom in having many perspectives in a conversation, and that it is important to have an environment where everyone can voice his or her concerns. There is real value to the school when everyone can participate rather than having just a few people making the key policy decisions.

Another school noted, “When the school was young we used a loose majority vote process, but even then we placed a premium on striving to truly understand everyone’s point of view before we moved forward to make a decision. A member of the school community and the Board of Trustees was a Quaker and quite familiar with the consensus process. She suggested that it would be appropriate for our school and urged us to adopt it. As we began to work with consensus she helped us to clarify our thinking and deepen our understanding of consensus, and we began to see its value in making decisions that the whole school could support. Although we had always tried to make decisions that everyone could support, we found that the formal process of standing aside and standing in the way helped ensure that we really heard the concerns that were living around an issue. Without this formed, formal process we might not have encouraged those with different points of view to speak up and share their truth. Over the years we have seen several instances where someone has stood aside or in the way of a proposal, and when he has explained his perspective it has shifted the entire conversation to a different tack.”

When asked if it had been difficult to take a process out of the Quaker tradition and use it in an organization that takes its direction from Anthroposophy the school replied, “Over the years there have been a variety of streams that have come into our movement and our school. When we deepen our understanding of these steams they lose their disruptive influence and we can square it with our anthroposophic perspective. The key is to bring consciousness to what is coming towards us, rather than to adopt a defensive posture.

“The school studied Steiner’s lectures on Republican Academies and found them very intriguing as well. We saw great value there, and have built up a high level of trust and confidence in each other through this approach. Our school now has a great deal of experience with creating small groups and empowering them to do a task. Because we have learned to trust each other the use of consensus decision making is particularly effective for us. We are not afraid to speak our truth when our perspectives are different from our colleagues because we trust them to listen fully and carefully to our dissenting point of view. Using consensus is not always easy. Human nature still affects us, and we are human beings trying to work into our ideals. This work takes a lot of trust.”

Yet another school explained, “We really want to serve the children and the school. Very often the hang-ups in decision making are personal ones, not ones that are about the school, and consensus does allow the possibility for a tyranny by a minority. Our experience shows that some issues can create camps and divide the school, and we want to minimize these divisive situations. Although most of our decisions end up with the group being in consensus, we do not struggle with that burden. We have identified a few areas in which it is critical that we be in consensus, and we work especially clearly there. It is interesting to note that in the past we were paralyzed on issues that were not terribly significant for the school. Having made the decision to move away from consensus decision making for most issues we now find that we are in consensus in the great majority of situations. We find that when we have really listened to others with an open mind the 2/3 majority is really a formality. The decision to use a 2/3 majority in matters regarding dismissal of an employee came out of experience. The decision to terminate a colleague’s contract is often divisive and for privacy or labor law reasons not all the information can be shared with everybody. We do not want dismissal decisions hanging on and on, with the school and an employee being left in an unsettled state for an extended period. Discussions about republican and democratic processes have been an important part of our school’s thinking about decision making. A lot of the operating decisions are made in the small groups after discussion in the larger body. The groups are entrusted to make decisions in a republican way, that is, they have been entrusted by others to make decisions on behalf of the larger group.”

GOV 6-4

What is working particularly well in your process(es) of group decision making?

The process is quite collaborative. Different stakeholders from the various realms of the school are well represented on the various major bodies and committees so our decisions are considered from many perspectives. Many people are allowed a voice in our decision making conversations, and yet the process is efficient.

The consensus process creates an atmosphere which encourages everyone to speak their truth, and allows everyone to feel heard.

Even when we think we have a clear picture of what is happening, we find that the consensus process forces us to listen to someone who shines a different light on things. This can turn the entire direction of a conversation, and has been healthy and helpful for the school.

When the right people are doing the right job the decision making works well. People are able to suppress their individual egos to support good group processes. Rarely do individuals exert their point of view strongly, and there is a trust built up between the members of the group in those rare cases where someone feels compelled to speak his mind strongly.

We are pleased with the way that we can emphasize cooperative decision making by eliminating the power of a single block. Consensus is an opportunity for people to interact on a personal level and truly meet each other. Yet it is also necessary to have an approach in place that doesn’t hold up work while the individual karmic knots are being undone. The Collegium does not exist as karmic therapy. Interpersonal issues may be worked on a bit in Collegium meetings, but are taken up in more detail when necessary in another setting.

We usually don’t have difficult interpersonal situations because of a decision. We are able to make decisions well and relatively quickly. The process supports good decisions being made in a relatively short time. It brings results and clarity. Each decision item is sponsored by a representative who brings the item for presentation and discussion. Having a point person for each issue helps ensure that we are well prepared to have a discussion and make a decision. When we make a big or difficult decision we review the decision and our process soon thereafter. We recognize what went well and where we could have done it better. This review conversation usually takes place a few weeks after the decision has been made once people are calmed down and able to reflect in a more balanced way. People really adhere to the decisions that we make. While people don’t always agree with the decisions the group makes, everyone feels that they have been heard. One part of the handbook describes the way in which decisions can be changed. The Leadership Circle must first agree to open a conversation that may lead to changing a decision. If the original decision was made by a 2/3 vote then 2/3 of the Leadership Circle must vote to reopen the conversation. If it was a consensus decision then consensus is required in the Leadership Circle to reopen the conversation.

In those cases involving major decisions the school tries to have a discussion of the matter one week and to make a decision a week later. We want people to be able to sleep on what they have heard before rushing into a decision.

When we are struggling with an issue the group may use Goethean conversation as a means of gathering the various perspectives living in the circle. An individual will share his or her thoughts, and then another person will do the same. There is no attempt to rebut the perspectives of earlier speakers, just a simple sharing of points of view.

Another important part of our decision making process is our conflict of interest policy. Sometimes a person will recognize that they have a conflict of interest with regard to a matter before the group. In other cases the faculty chair group may recognize the conflict and will advise the colleague of the perceived conflict. In cases of a conflict of interest people with a conflict are allowed to share their perspective with the group, but then leave the room before the conversation proceeds any further and a decision is made.

We try to guard against hallway talk. Our code of practice prohibits speaking about issues between meetings unless a professional environment for the conversation is created. Colleagues who feel the need to discuss an item outside of the meeting are expected to step into a private room and share their perspectives there. It is important to us that those people who need to share their individual perspectives are able to do so, but we do not want these conversations taking place in the middle of the faculty lounge or in a school hallway.

What is most important with regard to decision making at our school is that each group understands its process and is clear about its mandate. We review mandates annually to help groups as they strive for objectivity and sensitivity in their decision making processes.

GOV 6-5

If there were something you could change with regard to the way in which groups make decision at your school, what would it be and why?

The parents of the school would like to see more transparency in the decision making process, and would like to have a greater voice in some of the decision making. We continue to wrestle with how to appropriately include and communicate with the parent body.

The consensus process works very well for us. At times meetings can run long as we struggle to find common ground, but the end result is just what we need.

It would be helpful for us to change our approach to minute taking so that when people don’t vote for a particular item their perspectives are noted for future reference.

In the areas where finance and pedagogy meet it is not always clear how the final decisions get made and how best to ensure adherence with those decisions. For example, if the early childhood area would like to organize classes in a certain way and the finance committee decides that there is not the financial capacity to fund that imagination, we don’t always have a good way to break the stalemate. We have not found a way to support successfully all teachers and all departments in their efforts to see the whole school rather than just their area.


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