3 Foundational Principles of Parliamentary Procedure

If I gave you an either-or choice of (a) memorize all of Robert’s Rules or (b) remember three guiding principles, I’m going to go out on a limb and bet that 100% of you would choose b. And this is the essence of parliamentary procedure: At its core, it is not a body of rules anyone should memorize word for word. It’s a set of processes that enables an organization to move efficiently from point A to point B, based on a few key ideas.

Here’s why I steer you away from the 800+ detailed pages of Robert’s Rules toward some overarching concepts: Obviously, a memorization exercise like I mentioned above would exhaust even the most dedicated nerd. And it’s just not necessary. In my experience, what’s important is to latch on to basic concepts—but also keep your parliamentary authority on hand for ready reference on specifics.

Here are the “big three” ideas that will help you conduct business in an orderly fashion.

1. Parliamentary procedure protects the rights of each member.

In parliamentary procedure, members of any organization are ensured three basic equal rights.

  • The Right to Information
  • The Right to Discussion
  • The Right to Vote

No group can remove these rights for any member and still follow parliamentary procedure. And all the nitty-gritty rules are designed to uphold these rights.

If you’re ever unsure about the rationale for a certain rule—such as why a 2/3 vote is essential in order to end discussion, or why notice of the time and place of a meeting is required—the concept of members’ rights provides you with a quick answer. No member can be deprived of basic rights.

So, each member can expect to be informed about what’s going on in the organization. Each member present can also have a chance to discuss action items before those actions are voted upon. And each member present gets to vote on the business taking place.

Specific details in each of these three areas are outlined in parliamentary authorities—such as what kind of information all members are entitled to know or how many times each member has the right to speak on a given matter.

But the key idea here is that you cannot deny any member any of these basic organizational rights to participate and have a voice in what’s going on.

2. Within parliamentary procedure, the majority rules. 

The idea that the majority rules is also a core concept within parliamentary procedure. All voting is essentially founded on the idea that we’re trying to learn what most people want regarding a particular issue, and then we enact the wishes of that most popular opinion.

This is why we join a group in the first place: We believe that banding together with others who share our view will enable us to accomplish more than we could alone. We align according to the purpose of the organization, and we work together to conduct business and move forward.

Those who typically struggle with the idea that the majority prevails are those in the minority. And if this is the case for you, you may need to work hard to find the majority within your organization with whom you can agree. Don’t give up. (Also, the next foundational principle is for you.)

3. Within parliamentary procedure, the minority is protected.

Even though principle #2 explains that groups operate according to the wishes of the majority, you cannot run over any minority opinion just because it’s the view held by fewer members.

Parliamentary procedure says that the rights of the minority are as fundamental as the rights of the majority. We appreciate the justice of this concept within American society: Just because one member is alone in his opinion does not allow his viewpoint to be dismissed. And this complements the idea of principle #1—that each member has a right to be heard, even if that member’s perspective is original, maverick, or just less popular.

A key point regarding implementation of this principle lies in the process which your organization practices. In other words, it’s not okay to say, “We respect the right of any member to disagree,” but then prohibit the minority from actual representation.

In my experience, here’s how a minority within a group usually feels: They know they’re not going to win—yet; but they want to be heard in order to inform everyone of a position they feel strongly about; and they hope to win others over to their opinion once it is voiced. And even if they don’t succeed in gaining a majority, most people can live with a result they don’t like if the process was fair. In regard to this principle, fair process means giving equal opportunity to the minority.

And one last note—if you’re in the majority, it is essential for the healthy operations of your group that you work hard to be as inclusive of minority as you can.

Where to Learn More