Non-hierarchical (horizontal) decision-making

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This page was created to answer questions from activists interested in making group decisions in a more non-hierarchical way.

Listening, healthy conflict, reflexivity and flexibility are guides to making decisions that value the contribution of multiple perspectives. Continuing to commit to conflict management, non-violent communication, anti-oppression, restorative justice and group leadership make it possible to pratice a culture which tends towards non-hierarchy.

This page discusses how hierarchies fit into our groups' decision-making and how to address them in a way that suits our group's intentions.

The passages highlighted in this colour are knowledge shared during our learning circle on this topic.

Impacts of structure on non-hierarchical decision making

The structure is the first space that can influence the hierarchy at the decision-making level.

A group can have a hierarchy in its structure with the consent of the members of the group, such as a standing committee, a steering committee, etc. We can still want these groups with more power (standing committee, steering committee) to have horizontal internal practices.

Your level of horizontality depends on the goals of your group. These can be consistent with the use of a more horizontal structure as they could be achieved with a more hierarchical structure.

Pay attention to differentiated consequences. People are not affected in the same way by decision-making, due to the existence of oppression such as racism, sexism, classism and ableism. Thus, it is important to think about making decision-making according to the principle that each person can contribute to decision-making in proportion to the degree to which they will be affected by the decision. See intersectionality.

Examples of decisions - hierarchy in structure

Structural and intentional hierarchy

From an intersectional perspective, we may want to give more decision-making power to a steering group (hierarchy) composed of members of groups or communities experiencing several forms of oppression.

Within this same group, horizontal decision-making practices may apply, although there is a hierarchy within the larger group. The hierarchy present here is structural and intentional.


In another group, one may choose to use a consensus model (horizontality) to ensure that the voices of people from minority groups or with divergent positions are included in decision-making. This situation is plausible for a group not wishing to operate with a committee having greater decision-making power.

Horizontal decision making

Horizontal decision-making is linked to egalitarian interpersonal relationships through shared decision-making between individuals in the same group. We make a decision together and people have equal power in decision-making.

This way of making decisions is not self-evident. Many people have negative experiences related to group decision making. Here's one.

Incomprehensible and complex mechanisms, no integration of new people.  he first time I attended a meeting, I was disconcerted by the presence of points of order or privileges, without really understanding why people were given priority to speak before others. After a while, I thought I understood what points of order were, which can be used when someone breaks a rule. But I didn't understand what rules were being broken, the language of the ordering and questioning procedures seemed strange to me, especially since English is not my native language."  [1]

Faced with this type of relationship to decision-making, a new person can either learn the rules, debate them or leave the group with a bad impression of it and the decision-making mechanisms.

The thesis InterTwinkles: Online Tools for Non-Hierarchical, Consensus-Oriented Decision Making "establishes 4 factors influencing the participation of people in decision-making. Participation and power in decision-making are linked: the more a person is able to actively participate in decision-making, the more power they have in it."

When we want the members of a group to be able to participate (and have power) in decision-making, we must take into account:

1- Accessibility

2- Rules and protocols

3- Exclusive notions

4- Systemic/structural inequalities


Accessibility concerns access to the space (physical and symbolic) where decisions are made.

Learn about the needs of those involved or part of the decision-making process.

Practices related to accessibility promoting horizontality

Initial measurements
  • Include accessibility measures that include different types of people in decision-making as early as possible.
  • See Making your activism accessible for more information and to put initial steps in place that work for your group.
Receiving requirements
  • Provide an email address for receiving requirements (possible to say that messages must be sent X days before the meeting to allow the organizing team to implement the new measures).
Explicit communication
  • Explain the accessibility measures put in place.

Rules and protocols

Rules and protocols are the rules of groups and social codes related to participation in decision-making.

Certain rules and protocols make it possible to overcome the power dynamics present in society. Let's think about the dominant classes who enjoy enormous power over the rest of society, power which is not counterbalanced by the electoral model. Or the power given to men through patriarchy and/or white privilege.

Other rules and protocols have the effect of reinforcing the power dynamics of society. In both cases, they influence participation in decision-making.

Rules and protocols sometimes create unwanted power dynamics. Recognizing them allows you to respond better either by adapting your decision-making processes or by changing them.

Tyranny of the majority

A majority of the group supporting a proposal allows its adoption without accountability to other members (taking into account reservations, non-discrimination, etc.).

Tyranny of the minority

Especially in the consensus decision-making process, when one person has the power to block a proposal through their will alone. Power of veto.

See in the section on consensus for how to avoid this tyranny of the minority.

Tyranny of the structureless

In a group without a formal structure, decisions are made according to codes known only by a few people, which concentrates power in their hands.

See our page on structure to learn how to build a democratic structure and avoid structurelessness. This structure can be more or less hierarchical.

Tyranny of time
Time-related power imbalances are often overlooked in groups. Not thinking about the question of time in group decision-making (and meetings) favors people who have time. 

If we want to make unheard voices heard, we need effective meetings. If we want to build a mass movement [...] we have to understand that people usually don't have a lot of time to express themselves." [2]

General rules and protocols favouring horizontality

These general rules and protocols are in addition to the measures related to accessibility. The accessibility of spaces impacts who speaks and to what extent.

Inspired by the document  Les Chefs: How to get rid of them

Welcoming new people
Train new people on the intervention and decision-making mechanisms used by the group.
Task Responsibility

Related to the development of group leadership.

Clarify who is responsible for the tasks and limit the number of tasks that can be taken on by the same person.

All tasks can be subdivided into sub-roles. These sub-roles can be taken by responsible duos. For larger tasks, one person or a pair of people can be the point of contact for the task. The names of people interested in supporting the completion of the task are noted so that the resource person(s) can contact them.

Here are examples of task support.

  • Coordination of the next meeting (includes tasks: writing the agenda, announcing the meeting on communication channels and creating a Zoom link)

Task that can be carried out by a duo. A person cannot be coordinator more than twice in a row.

  • Invitations to a big event

Task that can be carried out by a small group of people. Appoint a person or a pair of people responsible and take note of the people wishing to be part of the small working group.


Related to the development of group leadership.

Create collective information tools.

  • Make a central Google Drive folder
  • Create an #Information channel on Keybase (platform similar to Slack and encrypted) for requests and sharing of information.
  • Show contacts for each committee so people with questions can contact them.

Related to the development of group leadership.

In the application of tasks, make pairs in order to share the mental load, allow the creation of new links and possibly allow sharing of knowledge.


Related to the development of group leadership.

Have rotating roles. Helps avoid monopolization of skills.

Equalize speaking opportunities in meetings (table turns, speaking turns, etc.).

  • A person responsible for feeling or a person responsible for speaking turns can take this role.
  • Some small groups choose to use the finger system to self-manage when speaking: each person raises the corresponding finger in turn. If a person has one finger raised, they raise two fingers and when the person before them begins to speak, they raise one finger to signify that they will take the next turn to speak. Some groups use this system by keeping their palm up, a concept related to children's philosophy which signifies openness and non-hostility.

On the role of guarding feelings: How can we incorporate space watchers and holders into our groups without veering into policing?


Related to the development of group leadership.

Have someone in a rotating role as coordinator in the background who has an overall vision.

Management of time
Try to avoid rescheduling meetings at the last minute (even if the majority of people are in favor).
  • This disadvantages those with the most personal and family responsibilities who must compromise and make arrangements to attend meetings. [3]

Estimate the time allocated to the different points and maintain this time distribution.

  • If meetings become longer, some people suffer more consequences than others given their responsibilities.
  • Allows you to respect the energy of people considering the concentration limits of individuals.
  • Give yourself more time for topics that require more discussion and avoid debating topics that do not require it.

Decision-making process favouring horizontality

This section is mainly based on the works On Conflict and Consensus and Consensus for Cities by CT Lawrence Butler

Faced with the 3 “tyrannies” presented above, 'consensus “is the 'least violent decision-making process  ” according to activist co-founder of the Food Not Bombs CT collective Lawrence Butler. He links consensus to nonviolence. For him, nonviolence in decision-making involves using one's power to persuade without using deception, coercion, or malice. We persuade with truth, creativity, logic, respect and love. It is also - and above all, considering the subject covered on this page - the most democratic decision-making process. Democratic in the sense that it includes the most people in decision-making.

A decision-making process, like consensus, distributes decision-making power because it...

  • encourages participation
  • allows equal access to power
  • develop cooperation
  • promotes empowerment
  • creates a sense of individual responsibility for the actions of the group.

Depending on the purpose of a group and the issue of member turnover, it may be preferable to adopt another model of collective decision-making such as consent , which allows for more action while still including horizontality mechanisms (when applied in such a way as to be accessible). Another group might also prefer to let members act autonomously as long as they respect the group's principles in order to allow for more dynamic action.

See our decision making pages for Collective decision making models:

Consensus decision making 101

Consensus decision making (suggestions for small groups)

Modified consensus decision making 101

Social codes favouring horizontality

Group leadership

Actively promote the sharing of knowledge and information in all business activities.


Value the different roles within a group.

Consultation of people affected by decisions

If we make decisions that will impact people, we seek to give them power in decision-making by consulting them. In order to achieve your group objectives, do not underestimate the importance of consulting “expert” people.

Self-criticism and reflexivity Value the individual evaluation of one's practices and behaviors in order to enable individual awareness of individual behaviors favoring hierarchy. Think about your individual power (often linked to personal privilege) within a group and how you can share it.
Manipulation detection When people manipulate spaces or people, know how to identify and undo it.
Commonly used manipulation techniques: fallacious arguments (intellectual manipulation) and emotional manipulation.
Culture of consent Avoid letting peer pressure interfere with people’s consent and safety.

Exclusive notions

Exclusive notions include the group's attitude and expectations towards its members. They will exclude from decision-making individuals who do not meet these expectations.

A group must be aware that these exclusive notions exclude certain people from the group, due to their identity and/or the oppression they experience.

Example: veganism

Concern for animal welfare might be a value shared by members strong enough that they are willing to exclude people who want to eat meat.

This value has the ableist effect of excluding people with a particular diet in which they must consume meat.

On the other hand, exclusive notions can have the effect of cultivating the narrative and resisting co-optation.

Examples: being against all forms of discrimination, cultivating non-violent communication, etc.

Structural inequalities

Structural inequalities are the ways systemic inequalities are reproduced within a group.

Practices linked to structural inequalities favouring horizontality

Anti-oppression training

A group trained in anti-oppression will be able to collectively react to systemic inequalities by integrating mechanisms to counter them within its group. This avoids putting a burden on people from marginalized groups (who remain within the groups despite the oppressions experienced) to “educate” their comrades or create “anti-oppressive” procedures because “they are the best placed to do so.”

Guarding the feeling A feeling guardian will support the group in creating an accessible and truly horizontal space. It will propose mechanisms to remedy the power relationships present in society as well as support the groups in maintaining a climate that values ​​healthy discussion. It also helps to promote the social codes desired by the group (see the rules and protocols section above).

This role can be fulfilled by the person facilitating. However, in the event that the facilitating person does not adopt this behavior, no counter-power exists to undo structural inequalities. The presence of a person guarding the sentinel ensures that this role is fulfilled.

See the page How can we incorporate space watchers and holders into our groups without veering into policing?

Positive experiences of horizontal decision-making

Flexible structure

In times of great mobilization, the executive committee withdraws and gives its power to the strike council which will be a power-sharing space in which new people can get involved and in their own way.

“It’s a more open, relaxed and collaborative space.”

Circle, consensus and food

In a small group, decision-making by round table. When we make a decision that everyone agrees to, we pass around a bag of chips.

Single-sex caucuses

Have single-sex discussion spaces before returning as a large group to present what was discussed. There is a second round of discussion which will allow us to go in more depth, keeping in mind what the other groups have said.

Governance by consensus

Work by consensus in order to govern ourselves collectively. This requires prioritizing the agenda and respecting the time allocated to the different points.


  • The horizontal aspect of your group's decision-making can be assessed by the members' feelings.
  • The more informed the decision-making, the more horizontal it is. This implies that the participation codes are well explained and that spaces to ask questions and get answers are used.
  • Participation with people of multiple identities and conditions enabled through access to the decision space is an indicator of horizontal decision making.
  • Doing tests, trying different decision-making methods and keeping written records of this collective learning process allows you to constantly improve.


Influential activists on this issue: Ella Baker, Joe Freeman, Jonathan Smucker, Barbara Ransby.

Chefs: How to get rid of them

Detailed summary of the book On Conflict and Consensus by section

On Conflict and Consensus PDF

Little purple book from ASSÉ

Thesis: InterTwinkles: online tools for non-hierarchical, consensus-oriented decision making

Article - The procedural is political

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