Consensus, Consent, and Objections

Heresy, I know, but I think Holacracy has a good point in using “objections” and not “consent.” Brian says in his Introduction to Holacracy video: “Consent has no place in Holacracy.” We want to hear objections to the proposal.

Restrictions on Consent

One of my criticisms of groups using full-group consensus is that first they commit to one for all, and all for one, then they begin putting restrictions on it. All for one and one for all except when only one person doesn’t consent. Or except when only 10% don’t consent. And that the objection has to be based on group values, which are often non-existent or unclear in respect the policy.
People who consent are never asked for the reasoning behind their consent. What restrictions are placed on consent? What does it mean? Do people explain their reasoning?
The number of restrictions placed on withholding consent proliferate almost as soon as consensus is adopted. Even sociocracy adds  restricts consent to  “paramount and reasoned.” “Reasoned” is logical but “paramount” is in the eye of the beholder. Who ever refused to consent who didn’t think their objection was paramount?

Consent Means No Objections

Holacracy has avoided the ambiguity and contradictions of the words consent and consensus by going straight to the definition that Gerard Endenburg realized would work in a performance-based organization in the first place — “no objections.”
I suggest that it is a historical artifact that the word “consent” exists at all in Endenburg’s implementation. Just as I think it was a historical artifact in Comte’s to think that a panel of sociologists should be, not just advise the government. He was steeped in autocratic his experience of a single ruler or ruling body. In 1850s France, democracy was admired but not all so accepted as practical. It’s cracks were showing even then.
In the 1940s, Boeke clearly meant consensus in the traditional Quaker sense. Everyone had to consent that a proposed action was in the best interests of the whole and all individual interests had to be considered. Even though Endenburg was educated in Boeke’s tradition, he actually stepped outside it in his method by using the logic of the physical sciences, not religion or politics.

The Basis of Objections

Endenburg based his definition of consent on the absence of objections and objections based on a specific criterion — the ability to work (or function) toward the aim if the proposed action took place. Consent is written in Sociocracy (1988) as “consent (no objections).” Since “consent” was the historically accepted word, he naturally used the word “consent.”
And I’m also sure he meant consent in the spirit of being inclusive. In the 1960s and 70s when he was developing his ideas there was a general reaction in the Western World to the exclusiveness and elitism of society. “Objection” was a harder sell with revelations of WWII still emerging. Objections had made no difference. Consent would have been more acceptable.

Branding Sociocracy in the United States

The letter S as a cattle brandSince sociocracy was introduced in North America, problems with the name “sociocracy” have hounded it.  Unlike European countries, Americans associate sociocracy negatively with “socialism,” sociocracy is harder to say in English than in many other languages. Unfortunately, the rejection of the word “sociocracy” and the use of alternatives continue to confuse the public and obstruct efforts to develop a cohesive image, a “brand” in the current marketing vernacular.

A Solution for Branding Sociocracy

Some of the various names for methods based on the principles fo sociocracy are  Dynamic Governance, Bio-Dynamic Governance, Dynamic Self-Governance, Holacracy, and most recently, Circle Forward. All are unique in emphasis and aim but share the same principles. One solution to unifying the field would for all to use a common phrase as a subtitle or in descriptive content.  “Implementing the principles of sociocracy” or “an implementation of sociocracy.” This would clarify confusion and  unify forces while allowing unique identities, business branding, etc.

Acknowledging a common methodological base would also encourage more dialogue about the nature if that base. This kind of dialogue about methods of teaching and practicing would be valuable to all. It would provide the kind of analysis that is necessary to the further development and application of sociocracy.

Techniques or Understanding

One criticism of We the People is that there is too much history and theory. Some people only want the “how to.”

“The book should start with the how-to.”

“Give me the technique, not the boring stuff.”


But if you focus on techniques, you then require more detailed techniques—one for every situation. As if there could be a manual to cover all situations. If there were such a thing it would look like Robert’s Rules Order and you would have to have a specialist—a parliamentarian—in every meeting to cite the rules. No one else would learn them, and if you stop the meeting to look them up the meeting could become all about the rules. Robert’s is a thick book. With small type.

With a focus merely on techniques the meeting content would be downed in searches of the right techniques.

Understanding Is Fundamental

Techniques are important but not by themselves. They are applications, not understanding. Without understanding you can’t develop new or unique techniques, ones to fit the situation confronting you. People are unique and changing. Situations are ever new. The techniques are almost universal in application but not always.

Learning techniques without understanding is like learning tactics without a strategy. When memorized tactic fails, you won’t know what to do. With and understanding of strategy, tactics can be adapted to the situation.

If you understand the historical development of sociocracy and the intentions of the principles, you can figure out a technique for any situation. You think first of the desired result and then how to produce it.

Focus the “Why?” First, Then the How

Understanding the reasoning behind the principles a much richer, developmental experience for everyone.

Collaborative Governance

I’ve been looking for a new description for and have tried several. In reading recent posts on [email protected] and sociocracy-related websites, I found the word collaborative used the most often to describe sociocracy and, perhaps more importantly,  to be used consistently with the same meaning:

Collaboration is working with others to achieve a common task and to achieve shared goals. It is more than the intersection of common goals found in co-operative organizations.

Why Not Consent?

The word consent is used by many to describe sociocracy but I haven’t found that people are attracted to it. Some because they don’t know what it means outside of a marriage ceremony, and others because they are afraid of it. They envision long meetings and months of discussion. However fundamental consent is in creating a sociocratic organization only those already familiar with consensus decision-making seem comfortable with it and many of them also want to avoid it.

Consent also doesn’t convey the feeling of a group, of a socius, of a society. It’s singular. I may want my singular rights but a sociocracy isn’t a singular. It is singulars working together, moving in the same direction, accomplishing shared aims. Sociocracy is a set of values, principles, and practices that help people do that.

Collaborative as a word has positive connotations* and without doing a statistical study is desirable to most people—if they also desire to be members of organizations. Not everyone does, particularly in their personal lives.

Collaborative Governance, Not Organization?

Using the word governance provides an opportunity to discuss the meaning of governing, of steering. People generally do not understand what “governance” means. They think it means “government.” Before a sociocracy can be created, the  concept of governance must be understood.

While sociocracy is also a method of organizing, the organization is the result, not the aim. What sociocracy does is establish a communications and decision-making structure that can steer an organization so that it accomplishes its aim. That is governance: an ongoing stable structure of relationships between people who self-organize and maintain communications and control in order for an organization to be most effective.

Collaborative organizations are inherently self-organizing. Each person, as an equal, also has to be a leader. Sociocracy is based on a set of values and can be discussed philosophically, but it is about steering and effectiveness, not just organizing.

Sociocracy will make the most impact when governance and leadership are understood.

*The one negative meaning associated with collaboration arises when a person aids an occupying enemy and betrays their own people is called a “collaborator.” Collaborators, however, work as equals and have shared aims. Wartime “collaborators” were not equals and were often treated as inhumanely as their fellow citizens. They sometimes “collaborated” in  fear of threats to harm family members, for example.

In collaborative organizations, people are rarely called “collaborators.” They are said “to collaborate” in “collaborative organizations.”

Update on

A picture of my Frazzled Brain
My Frazzled Brain

In January 2014, I decided that developing both my Sociocracy site and my Deeper Democracy site was turning me into a frazzled mess. In order to focus, I imported all the information from A Deeper Democracy to, planning to close down A Deeper Democracy. I spent almost a year developing as both a guide to the principles and methods of sociocracy and an exploration in relation to other ideas. I put a closed sign on A Deeper Democracy and let it be.

The problem was that writing about democracy, sociocracy, and governance in general all at the same time was confusing those new to sociocracy. Learning new methods is easier when the teaching focuses rather narrowly. To compare and integrate diverse ideas is a more advanced and a different task.

Combining my two interests—providing a comprehensive guide to sociocracy and exploring other ideas from the point of view of sociocracy—wasn’t working. And even without updates and a sign on the door saying “Closed,” the Deeper Democracy site was continuing to have high traffic. It had been linked in so many places people were skipping the front p age and going directly to content, which I hadn’t yet deleted.

A Resource & a Blog

My solution will be to develop as a resource site on Sociocracy, and develop A Deeper Democracy as an ongoing blog examining governance in society. I will still blog on but more in response to questions and specific methods.

It will take some time to sort the two sites out because it involves re-categorizing the hundreds of details of posts, pages, categories, and tags that have been exported and combined on one site and then imported back. So for the time being I will be working more on A Deeper Democracy. If you are interested you might also subscribe to that site.

Consensus or Sociocracy?

Drop Cap Letter QWe are 3 months into starting a cohousing community in western MA. We will soon be discussing how we will make group decisions. Consensus and sociocracy seem to be common strategies in cohousing and other intentional communities. Which do you recommend?

“Consensus or Sociocracy?” Is the Wrong Question

(But there are no dumb questions. This one is a very good question and one we hear frequently.)

Sociocracy and consensus are not opposite things.

  1. Consensus is a decision-making method.
  2. Sociocracy is a governance method.
  3. Sociocracy is a governance method based on consensus decision-making.

Sociocracy establishes a structure within which to make policy decisions (the planning and leading) and operations decisions (the doing).

Policy decisions are made by consensus. Operations decisions are made by the leader of the work group or as the circle decides. The circle can also decide to use consensus for day-to-day decisions, the consent of 2-3 circle members, or any other methods it decides work. As long as the decision to use another method is made by consent and reviewed periodically—annually, perhaps.


The sociocratic governance method allows you to delegate decisions to those who are most affected by them and still ensure that they are within the policies of community.

For example, the CH cleaning circle can decide by consensus to change its cleaning days to Sundays instead of Saturdays. That’s a decision they can make without consultation with anyone as long as they follow the policy that any community brunches on Sunday take precedence. (And announce it to the membership so everyone knows what to expect.)

Coordinating Circle

In sociocracy groups are called circles but they can be called anything as long as they are well-defined as decision-making groups with a defined membership and a common aim. All the circles are tied together by a coordinating circle that is composed of members of all the other circles.

The coordinating circle:

  1. makes policy decisions that affect more than one circle
  2. resolves decisions on which circles have been unable to reach consensus, and
  3. does long-range planning—2-5 years.

The coordinating circle includes representatives and leaders of all circles so it provides a larger perspective on difficult, complex, and long-term decisions.

Long-range planning is often missing in Cohousing. And decisions needing a wider range of knowledge go to the larger membership when it isn’t necessary or effective. The Coordinating Circle can fulfill these needs.

Full Membership Meetings

Some communities have  misunderstood meetings of he full membership and thus rejected sociocracy. Communities may still reserve some decisions for full circle meetings — all circles meeting together to make decisions on the annual budget, capital improvements, widely contentious issues, etc. Or hold full circle meetings to give feedback to circles or to discuss community issues without making decisions.

Policy decisions are those that affect future actions and decisions — the budget, job descriptions, scope of work, standards, etc.

Operations decisions affect the present, the day-to-day activities and are made usually by the leader or as delegated to members of the circle.


The circles decide how their leader will lead. In a gardening circle, for example, the leader may delegate tasks to people or decide which needs to be done first. Or they may decide to work together on each task. (Our workday participants did this last year with great satisfaction at seeing each job finished much more quickly and completely with no ends left for another day.)

Communications & Steering

Based on cybernetics, the sociocratic governance structure establishes a clear communications and steering structure so decentralized decision-making can work effectively without fragmentation, overlap, or duplication. In small communities where almost constant communication happens in the course a week, this may not seem important.

In larger communities this structure becomes very important. With 60-80 adults, you can’t talk to everyone all the time and the work is more complex — more buildings, more financial accounting, more children, more repairs, more illnesses, etc. Everyone can’t be expected know everything.

Where to Start?

It is very important to establish a governance system from the start—beginning as a full group coordinating circle. Then other circles are formed as the coordinating circle is ready to delegate decisions. People will usually belong to more than one circle. Circles self-organize and make decisions within their domain (area of responsibility).

It is important to distinguish between circles, which make decisions, and work groups that are assigned tasks and bring proposals, information, etc., back to a circle for decision-making.

Sociocracy is a governance method that both requires and is designed to support consensus decision-making. There is no other governance method designed to do this.

A Biography of Kees Boeke

Cover of Dutch Biography of Kees BoekeWell-received biography of Kees Boeke in Dutch by Daniela Hooghiemstra, a noted Dutch Biographer.

Available from


De christen-pacifist Kees Boeke (1884- 1966) wordt wel ‘onderwijshervormer’ genoemd maar hij beoogde niet minder dan de stichting van een nieuwe wereld. Toen de poging om die gemeenschap te stichten mislukte, besloot Boeke een school te stichten waar de ‘nieuwe wereld’ van de grond af opgebouwd moest worden. Deze unieke school kreeg na de Tweede Wereldoorlog een prominente leerling: prinses Beatrix. De koninklijke aandacht leek de kroon op zijn werk, maar luidde ook het begin in van de ondergang van Kees Boeke en alles waar hij altijd in geloof had.