Laird’s Critique of Sociocracy

Dear Laird,

I just read your blog post:

First, I want to say that I feel happy when I see your name on the page — it’s great to think of you again, and I deeply respect your expertise as a facilitator. I have enjoyed working with you in the FIC and elsewhere.

Second, I have some quibbles with what you claim. I’d like to improve your understanding of Sociocracy. I’ll respond to each of your numbered points in turn.

1. While the framework of Sociocracy does not refer to emotions specifically, I find that I can effectively use the framework to include emotional content. Emotional content is a valid input, along with any other information, during every phase of the policy development & decision-making process. Most of the trainers (and all of the certified trainers) I have worked with have a background training in emotional processing of some kind and bring that into the process. I see that as essential.

I agree with you that preventing conflict and upset is both impossible and undesirable; anyone claiming to do so is not likely to be effective as a facilitator or consultant (and certainly not as a leader). I doubt that the “advocate of Sociocracy” who made this claim to you has had much training or experience.

2. When I’m working with small businesses or volunteer groups, I emphasize the difference between operations and policy-making. In many consensus-governed groups, every committee meeting is governed by consensus. From what you say in your blog, it looks to me as though you imagine the “double link” representative showing up to every meeting! I generally suggest that small organizations have infrequent “circle meetings” of the coordinating team, perhaps one per quarter. Most operational decisions can be made by one or two volunteers or employees just doing what falls within their roles.

I’d be happy to talk through the details with you, but in summary I can assure you that it does not require as much time as it seems you expect it to.

3. In my experience of sociocratic elections, they are transformative and drive the development of group cohesion and people’s ability to deliver feedback effectively. Sociocratic elections develop the group’s ability to handle the non-trivial challenges you note:

o  Creating a culture in which critical feedback relative to group function is valued and encouraged.

o  Helping people find the courage to say hard things.

o  Helping people with critical things to say to sort out (and process separately) any upset or reactivity they are carrying in association with the critique, so that they don’t unload on the person when offering feedback.

o  Helping recipients respond to critical feedback openly, not defensively.

Of course none of those things is easy to do, and of course groups using Sociocracy don’t handle those challenges perfectly. I won’t try to convince you of the things you say I cannot convince you of — and you are just arguing with a silly straw man anyway. I do claim that handling the tough issues openly and with an appreciative frame (as in the sociocratic election) is a helpful approach to a difficult set of issues.

4. Different consensus-using groups have different bars they must pass in order to make a decision — from “everyone deeply agrees” to “everyone can live with it”. Sociocratic consent uses a very specific definition for the “paramount objection” — it must be a risk which would prevent a group from accomplishing its Aim, or the specific value which that group exists to deliver. It is true that this definition is similar to the definition of “Critical Concern” in Formal Consensus, but that definition is not universal to all consensus-using groups, and in my experience even highly-trained and experienced groups (including ones you and I have both been present in) fall into the “I don’t like it” trap. I am sorry you haven’t been able to find the explicit definition of “paramount objection” in your reading or training in Sociocracy. When I am writing organizational bylaws I usually describe it as “identifying a risk the organization cannot afford to take”.

Speaking of emotions, when you say that the distinction between consent and consensus is “just playing with words”, I imagine I see anger. Is that true?

5. You are right. Rounds are not always the best format. I recommend that sociocratic facilitators master rounds as their first process tool, and always use rounds when testing for consent.

6. It is not correct that Sociocracy decision-making processes must always start with proposals. I often recommend that people start with proposals, for the reasons you mention, but the standard policy-formation process starts with asking everyone to contribute information about an issue. This information often includes emotional content. It then procedes to a group proposal-forming process, and ends in a decision-making process relating to the proposal.

In summary, I have the sense that you’ve been getting your information on Sociocracy from uninformed sources, or a quick skim of some of the materials available online. If they’ve been my materials, then I apologize for my lack of clarity! Please do let me know if there is any way I can be more clear.

Nate Whitestone (formerly Nate White)

A Community Has The Right to Self-Determination

The Market Basket supermarket chain has refused the formal authority of its owners, and given its allegiance to the leader it trusts and prefers. When I say the “supermarket chain has refused”, I am referring not to the legal entity but to the community of workers that brought that legal identity to life. That community has done the right thing; what’s needed now is a governance structure that recognizes the community’s rights.

From on July 30th 2014, a summary by BoingBoing reader MiketheBard:
“[…] Market Basket, a New England supermarket chain that Consumer Reports named the 6th best in the country, has been all over the news in the Northeast for the last couple months.

After a long family feud, the majority stockholders fired their cousin, longtime CEO Arthur T DeMoulas. He had built the business on low prices, high wages, and ZERO company debt- All employees get profit sharing and a livable wage, and many have been with the company 20, 30, even 50 years.

Arthur T. was replaced with the former president of Radio Shack, with an evident goal of strip mining the wealth from the company–raising prices, cutting benefits, loading up with debt, and selling off real estate–in order to pay out higher stock dividends to the controlling shareholders.

The employees revolted. Top executives walked off the job and picketed in front of headquarters. Employees from managers to baggers are using their vacation time to protest outside stores. 68 out of 71 managers have pledged to quit unless Artie T is reinstated or allowed to purchase the remaining 51% of the family-owned company. Deliveries have stopped and twitter is full of photos of completely bare shelves. […]”

These employees are doing the right thing, and the majority stockholders are in the wrong. While I do not believe that the legal entity of a company is a person (contrary to current US law), I do believe that communities are like people and should be treated like people. To give external shareholders unilateral control over the life of a working community is wrong; it is not as bad as slavery, but it is wrong for the same reasons that slavery is wrong. Most corporate governance is geared toward injustice of this kind: giving a few the ability to control the many, to remove their means of livelihood, destroy their lives’ work, sever the relationships they have built, and squander their pensions.

A moral system of corporate governance must respect the right of a community to self-determination, aligned with a clear shared purpose. This does not mean that a community’s leaders should be powerless; on the contrary, those people a community chooses to lead it should be handed as much power as necessary to ensure business is done effectively. This power should be a delegation, however — it is held on behalf of the community. Self-determination also does not mean that shareholders, even external shareholders, are powerless. They should have a voice with exactly as much weight as any other stakeholder group (including employees) in the top-level governance of the corporate entity which provides legal structure to a working community.

When you are considering how this might apply to your own company, ask yourself this: “Do I want the power to destroy, or the power to create?” Current legal power gives majority owners the ability to destroy their companies, as we see in the Market Basket example, but the ability to create is fragile. It comes only with the enthusiastic engagement of employees (and customers, and investors, etc.). By adopting governance which constrains your power as a majority owner or chief executive, you force yourself to respect the voice of your working community. That respect buys engagement in a way that nothing else can. By giving up the unilateral power to destroy, you gain the power to create, working with the community you serve.

If you want to take practical steps to act on the ideas here, I suggest looking into Sociocracy. Although employee ownership (including worker co-operative structures) moves in the right direction, the best available model is the sociocratic one, in which multiple stakeholder groups have a voice in the governance of the company, and yet most decisions are made rapidly in the frontline teams where work is actually delivered. I see Sociocracy delivering on the promises made by employee ownership, providing effective particpatory management and governance to match the changes begun in an employee-ownership initiative.

I hope this is thought provoking in a useful way. What do you think?