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Can a system of equals exist in business?

by Laurianne Ling and Ben Racionzer

I’m 26. I have a four-year degree and if you’re anything like me you’ve had to make do with a pretty awful job in the service sector. Maybe you have worked at a movie theatre or maybe a restaurant. I have done both of those and I got to tell you; the management sucked. It seemed like they had no idea what was going on on the ground and constantly got on my case for some random thing that just didn’t matter. Honestly, the best managers were those who just left me to do what I knew needed to be done. If you are like me you do not associate work with having your opinions heard or feeling like your contributions are valued. I don’t think we are alone.

Is there a system that can change this dynamic and lead to a more effective, harmonious work environment for all?

Enter Sociocracy.

Sociocracy is a system of governance for organizations that want to self-govern with more equality. Core to sociocratic businesses is egalitarian values. That is the belief that everyone in the business has equal rights. Strange, yes! But think about this. If you felt your opinions made a difference in a business, no matter your position, would you be happier at your work? Would you take more pride in your work? Maybe.

I guess some people are just at work to keep their heads down and make that cash at the end of the month. Some people are even going to actively work against the interests of the business; stealing, lying, and trying to do as little work as possible. Hey, you probably know that person at work. But even I know that when it comes down to it, even ‘that guy’ takes a little pride in their work. I know that I eventually took a bit of pride in even my least favorite jobs. Even if it was pride in how I endured them. Maybe if I had a say in the running of those businesses I might feel proud of them just a little more.

Back to Sociocracy.

In Sociocracy, the business is structured in circles. Every circle is a semi-autonomous and self-organising group of people. These circles are small, they all have a clear understanding of their goal and also have full authority over themselves. Each department is on its own when it comes to decision-making. This, though, doesn’t mean the circles aren’t dependent on each other.

Let’s talk in some more detail. There are three main ideas we need to discuss: governance structure, consent decision-making, and feedback loops.

First, let's talk about governance structure. In a normal business, your manager tells you what to do, their manager tells them what to do and you go up and up until you get to the CEO or owner. In a Sociocracy this works a little differently. There are these circles that we mentioned before and every circle has an area of authority. Think about a restaurant. You have the waiters, they’d be in one circle; the chefs, in another circle; and the dish cleaners. We’re simplifying this a lot here but you can see that each of these groups has a role.

In sociocracy, each of these circles would be their managers with the ultimate goal of serving customers yummy food. Say there’s a problem with food taking a long time to cook. The chefs are the people who would know how to sort that out. Maybe the customers find some of the servers a little rude. The waiters should have a meeting about that. That’s kinda how this works. You also have this core circle in the middle deciding the goals for all of the circles. This core circle is linked to all the other circles through delegates. The main difference between how these circles work and how they work in a normal company is the influence that each person has over their circle. Usually, your opinion only matters as much as the manager cares to listen. In a sociocracy your opinion, as a circle member, is vital to the running of the circle.

Collaboration is a very important part of sociocracy and not only between members of one circle but also between different circles. Being semi-autonomous does not mean that circles can just wander off and do things that only benefit their specific circle, they are still dependent. This is through a process called “double links”, so going back to our restaurant example may be the kitchen wants a new oven but the waiters need some new umbrellas for the outdoor seating. The two circles are gonna need to work together so they don’t end up blowing the budget on all of this new stuff.

A crucial aspect of this double linking is having an ‘operational leader’ that links all the circles together. Smaller circles can form part of bigger circles in large organizations. A delegate is appointed by the smaller circles. The delegate is someone who members of the circle fully believe can handle the role. They then go and make decisions on behalf of their smaller circle in the bigger circles. This also really helps with the passing of information between different circles. A delegate is in charge of sensing, steering, and evaluating the process of reaching their small circle’s goals.

Let’s talk about the second idea: consent decision-making. Decision-making is a really important process in any business or organization, in normal businesses you have decisions by consensus or by a simple majority vote. In sociocracy, you have this thing called ‘consent’ decision-making. This means that no decision is made without every single member of the group is okay with it. The real question for everyone isn’t whether they think it’s the best decision ever but rather whether they (read their circle) could live with it. So a meeting goes something like this: everyone sits around and proposes resolutions. Everyone has a chance to bring up objections. Then you come together to find ways to improve the resolutions until no one has any more objections. At that point, it’s decided. The whole point of this is that no one walks away with any of their serious concerns just having been shut down.

Think of the American elections. But instead of some people loving the new president and others hating the new president, everyone’s at least kinda ok with the new president. And hey maybe some people still love their new oval office employee. Consent decision-making encourages people to object when they feel like the proposed resolution won’t fulfill the expected aim. The group must then come together and find ways to improve the resolution and meet the expected aim.

The last fundamental aspect of sociocracy is feedback loops. Sounds a little boring but this is important. Honestly, I feel like this should be a thing that I just do in my day-to-day but I’m just a little too lazy. Anyway, the way feedback loops work is that all policies that are formed by all the circles have to have measurement and evaluation criteria built into them. This is a list of things that helps track how effective a resolution was. So if our waiters are trying to be more polite and propose doing ten push-ups before serving every customer as a solution maybe we should check those customer feedback forms to see if our push-ups are making a difference. Big and small circles can also implement feedback systems that will help assess the progress that has been made as a group, the output that is gathered can be used to develop their systems even further.

In the book “We the People, Consenting to a Deeper Democracy: A Guide to Sociocratic Principles and Methods” by John Buck and Sharon Villines it says that “the sociocratic method is a “tool” and not a philosophy. It is only an agenda, political theory or moral stance to establish and protect the equivalence of each person and enhance their ability to pursue happiness and prosperity” (2007:125).

Sociocracy more than anything is about the self-development of employees in a way that does not only benefit employees but also benefits the system as a whole. What do you think about sociocracy? Do you think it could work in a business? Do you think it achieves its goals? Maybe if you’re running or thinking of starting a business it’s something you think you could try to implement!

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