Building Group Consensus

March 14, 2016

By Ellen H. Badger, Editor

Welcome to the third edition of Advice From the Field, a monthly online column that offers trusted career and professional development advice for international educators at all levels. This month we get helpful tips from an experienced international education professional on how to build consensus for group decision making.

Q. I’ve been asked to lead a task group at my institution with the goal of building consensus for international education among campus stakeholders and others. Do you have recommendations for where I might start?

A. Linda Heaney, Founder, Linden Educational Services

When taking on an important task like building consensus on campus, I create a mantra that keeps me focused if and when things begin to splinter or fragment. For this role, my mantra would be “purpose, people, and parameters.”

I like to know where we are going so “purpose” is my first word. What is our goal? Do we have the same goal? Are there other agendas-named or unnamed-on the table? How will we determine if the goal is met? It is surprising how often members of a task force do not share the same vision, so it is essential to tend to “purpose” as soon as possible.

The “people” part can be the most challenging and the most rewarding. At the beginning, I work hard to get to know each stakeholder, to understand his or her interests (or lack thereof) in internationalizing the campus, and to know if anyone might need extra attention. When corresponding with the group, I always use plural first person pronouns (we, us, our, ours) to reinforce that we are a team that can come to consensus, make decisions, take ownership, and help implement the new program. For this to happen, each individual needs to feel he or she is bringing something to the table and will be respected throughout the process. My experience is that the effort to work with each member to make them feel a part of the team is well worth it.

Finally, all groups working toward a new paradigm face “parameters” or limitations. The biggest obstacles tend to be physical (building constraints or technology issues); political (responsibilities are reassigned, power is shifted); and financial or budgetary challenges. It’s important for the task group leader to understand which parameters are fixed and which ones have some wiggle room. Nothing is gained from trying to knock down fences that won’t bend. Understand the parameters and keep working for forward progress.

You may create a different mantra, but for me, I’d keep my eyes on the three P’s-purpose, people, and parameters-and look forward to building a team that makes a difference in internationalizing the campus.

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"Advice from the Field" is a joint initiative of NAFSA’s Phase II Member Interest Group (MIG) and the NAFSA Career Center. The column is edited by Ellen Badger, coordinator of the Phase II MIG. For additional career resources, visit