Introduction: salaries in sociocracy

Role-based systems like sociocracy and Holacracy raise questions around roles and salaries. For starters, in a role-based system, what’s your job? Is it the sum of all your roles? Or is there a “core set” of roles that make your job, give and take a few roles of a more temporary nature? After all, your roles might change over time – sometimes quite a bit.
And what’s the basis for your salary? All the roles? Some roles? The ever-changing number of your roles? This is not so obvious!
Connected to that is also the question of identity – if someone pops the question of all questions, what do you do for work?, what is a good answer? Do you have to change the title on your business card, or the sign on your door, every time your roles change?

Concepts

Let’s start by defining some of our words.

  • The need for operations is met by people in roles. Roles cluster tasks and responsibilities that are defined and selected by circles to make sure operations are packaged in a meaningful way. Roles are temporary.
  • Jobs (or positions) don’t really exist in a circle- and role-based system. It’s only a construct for paid positions. Having a job or position (i.e. being paid for a certain amount of time) means to be “in”. While there might be a basic understanding of what kinds of roles are the basis to be hired, positions would not be tied to a particular role. For example, if someone is hired to serve as a videographer in an organization (because the organization is producing MOOCs), as roles and projects shift, the circles have to have the option of selecting that person into roles (by consent) that have nothing to do with videography – that’s the nature of self-organization.
    In that way, positions are an add-on that only serves the purpose of describing or negotiating salaries. In a world without pay, jobs/positions are obsolete constructs. People move in and out of roles fluidly as they and the circles see fit.

This means one can be hired…

  • for one role
    • as the role begins/ends, the paid relationship begins/ends
    • like an independent contractor, with one difference; the holder of the role has circle membership and consent rights in the circle as long as the person is holding the role
  • into a position
    • this means to be part of the organization overall – to be in the “pool” of people who can be selected into roles to do operations.
    • the position is independent of roles. Naturally, an organization will expect someone who is hired into a position to hold roles and carry out operations. Yet, dropping one role or picking up a new one would not mean that the pay would change. Each person is responsible (with appropriate support) for managing the number of roles they can take on to match what they are paid for and to manage a mix of roles that reflect their interest and qualifications.

 

So what?

It’s about choice

In a way, a role is nothing but a job, just a bit more fine-grained. So in itself, the only difference is whether one holds one job or several roles. But it’s not the chunking in itself that’s interesting but the implications of consent and a decentralized role-based system.
Only a circle can choose (by consent) who fills a role that is in a circle’s domain. For example, if let’s say HR decides to hire someone, that person can’t be forced into, for example, Marketing Circle without Marketing Circle’s consent. Now, in this example, should HR do the hiring or Marketing Circle? And if Marketing Circle hires someone and offers them a position but now the person gets selected into roles outside of Marketing, is that ok? Who decides that?

In a way, a salary linked to a position is always just a workaround so we have a choice in our circles. In Sociocracy For All, it’s the organization as such – in the General Circle – that hires people into positions. The people in those paid positions form a “pool of labor” that will take on roles as decided by circles. If that’s not enough to meet the needs of circles, or if special qualifications are needed, we can complement additional roles through role-based pay on a temporary basis. We strive to turn those temporary roles into full positions.

 

But it’s also about livelihood

There’s a philosophical issue here, and it has less to do with role-based ways of governing as more with the fact that people might require income for their livelihood. They need stability and safety to lead their lives; while we want to honor the ability of the organization to choose freely, we also need to hold the needs of the employee who is financially dependent.

 

Pros and cons of both approaches

Here are some pros and cons of role-based pay vs. position-based pay to address salaries in sociocracy:

  • Position-based pay has the advantage of giving choice to circles. They have the pool to tap into and therefore can select roles undisturbed by economic consequences for people who do or don’t get selected into a particular role.
    One disadvantage is that it can be hard to manage the overall workload – there’s no oversight of the workload. Each circle sees only itself and directly related circles. If one person has different roles in very different departments, they have to manage the workload and their priorities themselves. On the other side, it’s hard to track as the hiring entity what and how much someone is doing.
  • Pros and cons of role-based pay: The advantage of role-based pay is full clarity of how many hours/$ a role will be “worth”. It can be considered “fair” by the group.
    Yet, role-based pay puts a lot of pressure on circles and it limits choice. The stakes in every selection process will be high because each decision comes with financial implications for holders of roles. If we select someone into a role that has a $1000/month price tag, what will it feel like for the person who needed the money and was equally qualified but didn’t get selected? The value of choice based strictly on qualifications and not economic needs will be compromised in a role-based pay system.
    Also, it can lead to a culture where people only are willing to do exactly the work that fits into their “box” and nothing more. This means everything has to be spelled out explicitly leading to more, potentially overly bureaucratic overhead.

 

Comments: implications of position-based salaries

Form pools to provide choice

In my view, a position-based pay (with consent-based roles) is the closest to the ideal of sociocracy. I believe that because choice is such an integral part of consent, and I want to maximize choice regarding roles by getting the money ‘out of the way’ in a blanket-agreement for pay.

This works best in a world where everyone’s financial needs are met. (Think Universal Basic Income.) If we didn’t have to consider financial needs, we could focus on what’s best for the mission and purpose of our organization and for the growth of our members.

A position-based payment system provides almost like a small version of a Universal Basic Income: if you’re in, you’re in – and free to work on any project within the box, giving both holders and fellow circle members full choice to nominate, consent or object.

 

Emotional responses

Yet, this kind of practice can also be anxiety-producing for some. Here’s a list of reasons that I’ve come across in various organizations:

  • Fear of not being good enough. In the old world, being a specialist or a software engineer gave you a free pass. By having earned the degree and hired into that position, everyone assumed you were competent. Now, instead, people who work alongside you evaluate your work and have a right to nominate, consent, and object to you filling a new role. There’s no hiding behind a title anymore. That can be very scary for people.
  • Once people have that fear of “losing” one of their roles, they can easily go to the next-bigger frame: what if I lose all of my roles? What if my organization doesn’t need me anymore? The decision to let go of someone’s position should never come out of the blue. Ideally, an organization creates a process that goes above and beyond local legislation.
  • A big question that surfaces in choice-based roles is “what’s fair?”. For example, is it fair that Person B takes two times as long for the same role and therefore just turned down this other, additional role? Wait, why does Person E always say no because they are “overloaded”, while I take on more and more? Note that the lack of fairness and even those thoughts are not caused by sociocracy. It’s true in every organization that some work faster or better than others while being paid the same – or work the same but being paid differently. These thoughts and conversations just never have a place to surface, and in a sociocratic system, they do. Keeping salaries secret is just one way to ignore those very valid questions. On a societal level, these discussions are long overdue… and uncomfortable when they finally do happen.
  • Status. Many people attach their identity to their job. In old-world thinking, the question “what do you do for work?” equates to “what’s your place in society?” Now what if you have nothing to say because you have all these roles that you fill but they don’t form a coherent “job description”, then what?
  • Identity crisis to the inside: how can I measure my contribution to the organization if I don’t have a title on my position? Who am I for my organization? Am I my role? The sum of my roles? Where’s the “me” in that?

 

Here are ways to mitigate that effect:

  • Reframe those expectations. Be more of you everywhere. And you can weave and integrate those identities by talking more about your parent identity in your job roles. More of your gardener identity in your teaching role. You’re learning and experiencing things in all of them so why not cross-use those skills and stories and sources of identity? For example, I learned so much in being a parent of 5 children, and it certainly prepared me in being an operational leader more than my degree did – I am not afraid to say that. Does it take away in status? Maybe. But it’s the truth and I am proud that I learn in all areas of my life and ongoingly.
  • What are you about? Find your own purpose. Check your priorities – is this organization important to you? Are you proud of how it fulfills its mission? Then you might be proud to say that you’re part of the team, no matter what your title or position is. It might be your source of belonging, and that’s wonderful to have.
    Some people have more attachment to their position or identity than to their mission or their organization. If that’s the case then this way of working will bring up questions. That’s not a problem per se – it might well be that your identity and belonging to an organization align well. But I’m very much aware that this also might open quite a can of worms. What if you find out that you share the mission but you don’t align with how it’s being done? Will you give that feedback? Or even worse, what if you find out that your organization doesn’t have a mission that is actually important to you? Will you leave? That’s only for you to decide, and I thoroughly hope your economic and life situation allows you to be in choice.

How do you address this in your organization?