Oh, how I wish sociocracy were a magic fix for all issues that organizations have! Unfortunately, I don’t believe that there’s such a thing as a magic fix. The age of easy answers is over. Does that mean there’s nothing one can do? No, there’s plenty that we can do! But the solutions are not so much one-size-fits-all. Instead, what we need is a systemic view of our governance tools and practices. In this article, first, we’ll zoom in, then zoom out, and then talk about concrete things one can do.
Let’s use a concrete and typical example as a starting point. In consent decision-making, any circle member can object to a proposal. In that case, the circle needs to rework the proposal until everyone consents. Despite there being clear rules about what an objection is, ultimately, the system relies on cooperation. Together, the circle will decide how they evaluate the concern, and together, they will find a solution. In my experience, this works beautifully in almost every case. Yet, when people learn about it, sometimes their first response is: “yeah, but what if one circle member doesn’t cooperate?” What does an organization – or a society – look like without cooperation? All of our systems rely on cooperation. For example, our currencies are just a shared agreement. The legal system is. Our culture isn’t a given, we make it up. Our language and communication rest on cooperation. If I choose to call everything by a different name, you will stop understanding and talking to me. Our traffic system works because people primarily cooperate. There is no way to coexist outside of cooperation to some degree. So what if one person refuses to consent. What would happen? Everything would slow down, get very lengthy. People would be frustrated. Ultimately, the circle might kick the person out of the circle or the organization, or the organization would go down the drain. While that is true, it’s by far not the only way. To understand the power and leverage we have on this topic, we need to zoom out and look at the big picture.
At that moment, when the person says “I object”, what factors are influencing the situation? Before I even start, let me say this: inherently, the list below will be incomplete. It’s just my words and thoughts, trying to reduce an immensely complex world into a few bullet points. There’s more. Whenever we boil things down enough to describe them, we reduce the richness in it. But let’s look at the list.
What’s happening in the moment?
- How are people doing in that moment in the meeting? What were the previous agenda items? Are people already strained, tired, frustrated? Or are they optimistic, engaged, and activated?
- How well are circle members doing overall? Are they in good shape physically, emotionally, financially, socially, economically? For example, how well did everyone sleep? Are their family members ok?
- What’s the sense and mood of the meeting? Is there time pressure? Is this happening at the beginning of a spacious meeting, or are we competing with the clock?
The circle’s story
- How well has the circle worked together before? How well do people know each other? How often do they share vulnerably?
- Is there respect and shared reality in the circle – do they understand what others are talking about, or is there a sense of disconnect? How have mistakes been handled in the past, and how are successes celebrated?
- How homogenoeus is the circle in terms of ideology, age, or experience?
The proposal’s story
- How was the proposal written; for example, did one person submit it who wrote it alone and “in secret,” or was it written collaboratively with everyone present?
- Has the objector been heard on the proposal, or was this the first time they heard about it? How long has the proposal been in the making?
- How important and urgent is this proposal?
- How well are the proposal and the subject at hand understood by everyone? Do people have a lot of expertise on the topic, or are they out of their depth?
- Has the person been well heard in this circle before? Does the objector have reasons to believe that the other circle members wouldn’t take their needs seriously?
- Do they feel daunted by the impact? How much are they impacted?
- Are they focusing on fears or their own agency?
- How new/old/experienced are they in the circle and the organization?
- What is the social structure of the circle – for example, is one of the people involved the organization’s founder? Or the lover/ex/child of an influential person in the organization?
- How well-liked and tightly connected are the subsets of the group?
- How accountable has the circle been (e.g., in following up when they decided to follow up on a topic)? This would inform whether people can trust that people do what they commit to. Have they been able to speak up and be heard, and was there a place for it (for example, in regular meeting evaluations).
- Is this circle overloaded with hard decisions? How much support do they have from their parent circle and child circles? How well is reporting working between circles? This would impact the overall workload and support system of the circle.
- Is there a clear meeting structure in all meetings? Is the meeting structure reliable? Is the process clear enough, so people know that they will be heard?
- Is there clarity of aim, domains and roles? (Lack of clarity wears circles out and makes it hard to make decisions!) Do people know how to create that clarity?
- Was it clear what it means to object? Is it clear how to access a support system differently?
- Is there a circle for conflict resolution that one could access (if that’s in place, it might be less likely that people are “difficult” to be heard).
- Who talks how much in the meeting and in previous meetings?
- Has the facilitator and the circle proven to be skillful and clear in their facilitation? How lax have they been, or how rigid? How transparent have they been in their decisions?
- Does everyone – but in particular the facilitator – have enough skills to address objections in an orderly way? Do people know what to do with an objection?
- How well is training in onboarding done? Does everyone know how to run the process or just the facilitator?
- What’s the context of the circle? For example, the economic situation overall in the organization. Are people volunteering, paid, underpaid, or is there a lot of difference in whether/how well people are paid?
- Is there a lot of difference in terms of class and race? What’s the dynamic between people from different class backgrounds? How many people of color or from a minority are in the organization or the circle?
- What are the age differences between people, and what does age difference mean in that culture? (For example, in some cultures, being older means deserving unquestioned respect, rendering it harder to object to that person’s proposal.)
- What are the gender dynamics in the circle? How many women are there? (Being in the minority makes a difference!) How do those align with power dynamics?
- What was the objector’s experience with groups? Have they been heard well? Have they experienced trauma? This can be a personal or wider scope.
- What are belief systems or cultural contexts? For example, extremely consensus-based cultures might make it hard to object in the first place, delaying objections to desperate situations. That is a big box!
Let’s be honest. Whether we object to a proposal or not is not a crystal clear decision. It’s not 100% rational and predictable. People who believe that are most likely ignoring many of the factors that undeniably affect our behaviors and decisions.
What this means
With a systemic view on meetings, the question moves away from “what can we do if someone objects?” or “what do we do if someone doesn’t cooperate”? The question becomes more about how to build and nourish an ecosystem where people are empowered to self-organize. Where they know they are heard, they know how to resolve objections equitably when they do arise and know each other well, they give feedback, are honest, transparent, proactive, accountable,… and of course, this ideal situation never exists. So it’s not about how to have the perfect ecosystem. It’s about how to shift one aspect of the ecosystem a tiny bit more into a more desirable direction. Choosing to be proactive or slacking. Choosing to listen or rush. Saying what we think with self-responsibility or airing our anger without consideration. Each moment contributes to culture. In that way, sociocracy isn’t one thing. It’s a set of tools and practices. You don’t have to do everything by the book 100% of the time. And they are not do-it-or-fail tools. You can still have a great meeting when one thing is off. Maybe you can even have a great meeting when ten things are screwed up. Is there a breaking point? How much will the needle move towards “lack of trust” if you keep going this way?
Concrete things one can do
Trust is the currency in governance. Flow of information, shared power, transparency, self-responsibility – they all add up. Like we’re putting something into an imaginary “good governance bucket” that should be somewhat full most of the time. What you can do to improve is to get a little bit better on one of the aspects in the list above. Pay attention to the moment, get to know each other, work things out together as often as possible. Learn how to facilitate meetings better, make sure everyone has had enough training, shed some light on power dynamics and lines of oppression, improve your communication. All of those actions will pay off. A tiny bit, but it will add up. For example, learning one more hack to integrate objections isn’t changing the world. It doesn’t instill trust in everyone immediately. Neither does it turn everything around. But it shifts the ecosystem a tiny bit more towards a resourceful system overall.
Sociocracy training is essential, but it’s just itself part of a bigger ecosystem: anti-oppression training, healing, communication, personal growth – they all make it more likely that there will not be a moment where someone “doesn’t cooperate.”