Consent and Lazy Consent

In sociocracy, the default decision-making method is consent. Consent is clearly defined as “no objections”, and objections are defined as “a measurable concern that carrying out the proposal at hand will have a negative impact on our group’s ability to carry out our previously agreed upon aim (ie the very reason we meet together in the first place)”. But consent can lead to lazy consent…

Consent is all fine and dandy both in theory and in practice. I don’t mean this ironically, I really am convinced that it has the potential to transform our realities, as it has done with my own worldview and that of many others.

However, even within sociocratic organizations that are committed to consent, we sometimes practice what we call “lazy consent”. The term is borrowed from “lazy loading” as used in software development, and it matches well with sociocracy’s need-based approach to decision-making: proposals and policy decisions are strategies to meet our needs and our aims. In other words: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

How it tends to work in practice is that a proposal is accompanied by a date by which circle members are invited to share objections. If the term passes and no objection was raised, the proposal is assumed to have consented.


My Recent Experience

I had previously learned about lazy consent reading the book Many Voices One Song, and it generally made sense to me. But it wasn’t until recently that I experienced it more actively in a circle. The proposal was a document consisting of our shared vocabulary for sociocratic terms in Spanish, our glossary.

What worked well

It was a fairly large document, so it did require deep involvement to actually go into it and engage with the content; It made sense to keep that more time-consuming activity outside of meetings so that those who cared to look into it could do so in a focused manner. 

Also, it was pretty much already done. I had been working on it asynchronously with someone else, and most of the groundwork for it was laid out as we translated the book MVOS to Spanish. Asking for consent from the circle was mostly a ceremonial formality, not just in getting the approval, but adopting it as the organization’s shared glossary and not just my own. I even sent out a survey afterward asking to evaluate the experience of trying out lazy consent for the first time.

What could have been different

Reading and reflecting on the responses to the survey that I sent out, I had some important realizations about the process. What made lazy consent seem like a good option, in this case, is exactly what could have become troublesome as well. Leaving the decision for outside of the meetings, in a way, required a “barrier of entry” for members to object: if they wanted to object, they had to take time outside of the meeting to open the document and engage with it.

Now that some time has passed after we consented to the proposal, I worry that because we consented asynchronously, we didn’t pay much attention to how the policy is rolled out. Not just to other circles (which is also important), but I don’t know how much the members of the circle actually use the glossary and keep it in mind enough to know where to find it.

This tells me that perhaps doing the process “lazily” didn’t empower the group to take shared ownership of the decision and the product. In the email I sent this in, I tried to invite questions and reactions, but no one really posed any. There were no objections, but also no real input from others.

One response to the survey said it felt like it was done just to “get it done” and cross it off the to-do list and not so much to meet a need.


What I learned: Care and Power

Reflecting on the survey responses and the experience in general, I realized that lazy consent, in a way, highlights the most delicate key elements of consent. Seemingly counterintuitively, lazy consent requires even more care work on behalf of the facilitator or the person asking for consent.

I realized that the investment people had to put into the document in order to give their input, which I originally considered a positive catalyzer for deeper involvement from others, is exactly the kind of trap used to play dirty in non-consensual power systems like state bureaucracies: putting things in the fine print to court others easily while slipping away from any sort of accountability.

This made me realize how much power I had in the group. In the case of this decision specifically, consent ultimately came down to how much the rest of the group trusted my criterion as the author of the document. If I had the intention, I could have easily gotten away with very selfish, sneaky actions like changing some terms to my personal preference even though I originally included ones with a wider audience in mind. And even with the care and dedication that I put into the lazy consent process, there were some elements that could have made it a more wholesome group process.

Here’s the flip side, though: it got done. Wholesome process or not, we made a decision, came out with a product, and took a step forward. We put a term on it and will review the decision based on empiricism. If the experience shows that the document needed more group input, we’ll have a chance to do that when we revise it. Even if the experience shows before the term ends that the decision/the document needs revision, we always have the power to bring it back to the circle’s agenda and re-submit it to consent.

This is the part that makes consent really genuine, that it is at any time retractable. Being asked to consent (saying yes) is only meaningful if one has a real capacity to say no (to object). And you only have a real capacity to say “no” if you know and feel like you do if you feel empowered enough to object freely. We only have that when we feel that others care when everyone trusts each other and the group feels safe.

Cultivating exactly that feeling of freedom is the work that lies at the heart of successful group decision-making, and of any horizontal relationship building, really. Each and every one of us is responsible for stewarding that healthy balance between care and power in our groups and relationships. Care as continuous, intentional attention put into our shared processes. Power as in realizing that each of us has some agency at all times and that we can use it assertively and empathically to contribute to building each others’ sense of agency too. The aim of sociocracy is to merge these two forces into a constant state of shared power.