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)

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