Tag Archives: Consent Consensus

Sociocracy’s Achilles Heel

The Achilles Heel of sociocracy is its dependence on the willingness of people to act. How can a sociocracy be any stronger than a democracy or even a monarchy if people are not willing to stand up and say, “I object” and then take action to implement better options?

Trump, Trumpism, and Trumpist

In the winter, I promised to write more about Donald Trump as a democratic leader (already a difficult leap) and how things would differ in a government based on the Sociocratic Circle Method (SCM) of organization. A series of compare-and-contrast analyses that would illustrate the ways in which a sociocratic democracy would prevent or disable a Trumpist government.

The  24/7 television news channels have been and still are a daily deluge of perfect case studies:

  • spiteful decisions made with no regard for advisability or even workability,
  • denial of factual information,
  • disregard for advice,
  • refusal to even consider statistical analyses,
  • repeated proclamations of demonstrably untrue boasts,
  • rushing to implement policies before anyone can study their social or economic impact, and
  • preference for executive orders over a democratic process.

I could have written all day, every day for the last 10 months and not covered a fraction of these actions and decisions. Instead I have a pile of un-finished posts. Some had only a few lines before I was discouraged by my own arguments.

Ultimately, I realized all the examples came down to the same weakness. A weakness that  would be as true of sociocracy as it is of democracy.

The Achilles Heel of Freedom

The Achilles heel of a free society and a free government  is  its dependence on self-organization—the ability of citizens to act with power and make good decisions.

A free government cannot be legislated. It can’t be awarded to a society after it and its allies win a war. Laws only work if someone makes them work. This requires respect for the values of a free society.

A decade ago, one of the arguments for sociocracy  was that it was value free,  “an empty tool.” It could be used with any political philosophy, by any business venture, or in any society no matter its religious tradition. Sociocracy didn’t bring with it a bias toward any ideology. It wasn’t Christian or Marxist or Free Trade. What this value-free argument neglected to notice is that sociocracy stems from deep fundamental values that are not shared by all societies: freedom and equality.* That all people are to be respected as being of equal value and have the freedom to control their own lives. That’s why the great feedback loops that permeate sociocratic organizations ensure that any person can correct the wheel by raising an objection to a decision that doesn’t adhere to these values.

A government is nothing without the governed. Each part in a system has to have a role, or it isn’t a part of the system. Without the support of citizens,  a free government will move toward entropy and ultimately dissolution. In entropy where there is no self-organization; the  lack of a dictator becomes a liability.

Effective Objections and Consent

All the violations of good governance in Trumpism are like veneer on rotting wood. Evaluating the veneer may lead to improvement in the next layer of veneer, but the wood beneath will still be rotting. Rotting wood has no ability to act—to do its job in supporting the feeding of the tree and producing foliage.

The fundamental concern in the most unlikely election of Trump to the presidency is not the values and behavior that Trumpism condones. The most frightening and revealing fact is that so many stepped back from stopping it. Effectively, they consented when they didn’t object. They not only let it happen, they found incredible justifications for doing so. The choice to respect a political party affiliation is not a sound argument.

Why a Sociocracy Wouldn’t  Help

Every compare-and-contrast example I found to illustrate what would be different in a sociocratic government was also an example of why it could be just the same.

A sociocratic governance system is based on self-organization—the expectation of effective leadership and action on the part of all its members. That isn’t encouraged in our present political system. Money dominates as  a factor in getting elected and requires  loyalty to party and donors before ideas.

Would sociocratic elections conducted between colleagues be different? Only if the colleagues are willing to object as well as consent and make logical arguments in support of their decision.

Strong followers produce strong leaders. The meanings of “strong” include intensity, power, and the ability to engage in sound reasoning on the basis of  convincing evidence.

Pointing out fallacies, untruths, and destructive behavior are not corrective objections. They do nothing to challenge or change the system that allows the offenses. Doing one’s best even in the face of daily omnipotent and counter productive actions has the effect of consent.  Action brings hard choices and uncertainty. Lack of action has equally hard choices and more certain consequences.

Trump as President Isn’t a Fault of Democracy

Donald Trump is not a symptom of what is wrong with democracy. For those who believe democracy is synonymous with majority vote, I note that he isn’t the result of a majority vote. He lost the election by millions of votes. He was a puppet who won on a technicality cleverly created by a foreign government using US citizens as conspirators to disrupt the election process. The principals  didn’t take action to stop it. The failure to act is being revealed daily in the investigation into what actually did happen during the 2017 election. Both causes, manipulation and failure to act, were years in the making.

A strong democracy could have avoided Trumpism. It would have taken an equally strong sociocracy to avoid the same result. There is no promise that sociocratic governments would be inherently stronger. In both it depends on who is willing to commit to action — to consent as an actively supportive action, not passive acquiesence; and objections as a corrective actions, not vetoes.

Disruption, Distraction, and Disrespect

Trumpism feeds on disruption, distraction, and disrespect. It’s only purpose is to defeat whatever system is in place. Aside from the self-aggrandizing quest for more money by Trump and his wealthy supporters, many of those advocating for Trumpism in the Midwest and South believe that anything is better than what we have. If we can get rid of the current system, a new system that is fair to us will be allowed to emerge.

Does anything better ever just emerge?

No, it is created with action. Neither democrats nor sociocrats can guarantee that people will act in their own best interests, or even understand what they are.

 

I allow myself one rant: I am baffled by journalists who are still trying to attribute  Machiavellian intelligence and strategic planning to a pathological narcissist with an instinct for self-preservation who acts entirely on his own obsessive concern with winning by destroying people who “aren’t nice” to him. It is a pointless effort to hope that somewhere in Trumpism there is an intelligent plan, however subversive. It reflects the human need to find order, especially when it doesn’t obviously exist.

*The word equivalence is preferred over equal in sociocratic circles because it is more  likely to be interpreted as “equal but not identical.” The equality in sociocratic organizations is related to equality in one’s sphere of responsibility and decision-making authority. It clearly says that having equivalence as a citizen doesn’t mean I can walk into the White House sit down with the National Defense Council and raise objections. I prefer equal because the word is more familiar and I think people know that it means equal respect under the law and equal consideration in one’s social and economic life. Equal, but not identical. And free to self-determine, free of standardization.

 

When to Use Consent and Consensus Decision-Making?

Graphic drawing of the 5Ws plus H. The Five W's — who, what, where, when, why — are determined by policy and require consent. The 6th W, How, is delegated to the operations leader who implements policy to achieve the purpose of the circle.
The Five W’s — who, what, where, when, why — are determined by policy and require consent. The 6th W, How, is delegated to the operations leader who implements policy to achieve the purpose of the circle.

In sociocracy, consent and consensus decision-making are only used for policy decisions. Policy decisions are those that govern actions and allocation of resources (budget, people, etc.). But this leaves questions for many people—what other decisions are there? The distinction is clearer if you look at policy decisions vs. operations decisions.
Operations decisions are the day-to-day moment-to-moment activities that implement policies. Operations decisions are normally made autocratically by the leader or by an individual who has been delegated to complete a task. “Autocratic” doesn’t mean a dictatorship, however. In sociocracy, leadership style is determined by those being lead as well as the leader.

Policy: What, Who, Where, When, and Why

Policies specify the 5 W’s of journalism — What, Who, Where, When, and Why.

Operations specify the sixth W, the How.

When to Use Consent and Consensus Decision-making?

Consensus makes the best policy decisions because it requires consulting the wisdom  of each member of the group and obtaining the consent of each member of the group.

Autocratic or strong leader decisions, however, enable quick decisions and effective actions. Sports Teams, for example, function autocratically on the field for a reason—everyone has to make split second decisions based on the same previously determined rules. In this context, stopping to get consent would produce a no-win result.

All Members of a Work Group Participate in Policy Decisions

A major difference in sociocractic decision-making is that both kinds of decisions, policy and operations, involve the same people. Policy decisions are made with the consent of everyone in a working group, participating as equals. Thus the operations leader and the other members of the group must all consent in determining the leadership style. And members of the group consent to follow the leader’s lead.

Not all operations leaders function equally autocratically. One group might have agreed that the leader will decide outright. They like clear instructions. Another operations leader might ask for a  discussion how to double-dig the garden, for example, but it isn’t necessary and can be counter-productive. If the aim is to get the double-digging done, debates on the ethical issues involving the death experiences of worms will not accomplish the group’s purpose.

Operations follow policy. If in the course of work, it becomes clear that the policy could be better the leader makes a decision, and the policy is fixed later. If there isn’t a policy, the leader will determine the best solution and a policy will be addressed in the next policy meeting.

The operations leader can consult, and would be stupid if they didn’t, but the purpose in operations is policy execution.

The 5 W’s plus How

If there is a proposal to increase privacy by the playground, the policy questions needing to be addresses might be:

What is meant by privacy?
Who is responsible for executing the policy?
Where does the policy apply?
When will it be executed?
Why is the policy necessary and what does it intend to do? What is its purpose?

The How with all its details is then handed over to the operations leader for implementation following the 5W’s spelled out in the policy.

Since our 5 W’s plus one are being applied outside journalism, there would also be a budget for people and labor and a specific plan for evaluation of results. The Why would be considered first instead of at the end. But it is a good way to distinguish between policy and operations decisions.

Governance vs. Execution

Policy decisions don’t change from day to day. Governance is normally very stable. Operations decisions can change as necessary,  daily or even moment to moment..

Policies should be reviewed annually but needn’t be changed unless there is a reason to do so. If there are changes in the group’s function or there is new information, policies can be revised at any time in policy meetings using the consent and consensus decision-making process .

Another characteristic of a policy is that it governs the future. It has a beginning date and a future date for review. Some policies may be in force until they are changed or withdrawn—the name o f the organization, for example.

On the other hand, operations decisions are executed in the present or the near term. The decision to plant the south garden with herbs for the next five years is a policy decision that will be reviewed annually. Unless it is changed, it governs the next five years. How the herbs are planted and on what day is a decision for the moment and doesn’t address how the herbs will be planted in the future.

Operations will go much more smoothly if they are guided by clear policies.

Decorative Separator

This post is a departure from the sociocratic analysis of the last entry on the similarities of Trump to Hitler. I intend to return to that topic. 

Policy Decisions

In order to ensure equality and freedom, the core democratic values, sociocracy requires that policy decisions be made with the consent of those delegated to implement them. Policy decisions are confusing to many people because as citizens and employees, we are rarely asked to make them. Policy decisions are those that determine how we will act in the future. How will we do this? What will guide our actions?

A policy decision tells us how to make choices in order to act in alignment with our purposes and goals.

Policy Decisions Guide Operations Decisions

While many of us make decisions moment-to-moment according to choice or unacknowledged purposes, the most effective think carefully about their long term goals. They define our purposes. These might include a desire to live more an environmentally responsible life, to create our own company, to raise children who are socially and environmentally responsible, to provide emergency services to war-torn countries. These are policy decisions. They state our purposes.

Policy decisions then guide our daily, moment-to-moment decisions. Does this action contribute to achieving our purpose? Does it align with my values? Does this contribute to my goals? These are operations decisions How we “operate”? How we act must align with our purposes if we are to achieve them.

Each policy reviewed regularly and changed when based on experience or changing conditions there is reason to modify it. Like budgets, they are not “forever” decisions.

Consent Is Required for Policy Decisions

Policy decisions are made with the consent of the people who will put the policy into operation. Requiring consent ensures equal consideration of every member of the group. Each member’s objections to a policy must be resolved before the policy can be adopted.

In sociocracy, you are guaranteed of your ability to collaboratively determine your living and working conditions whether you are a citizen, an employee, a member, a neighbor, or a student.

Consent is defined as “no objections.” Giving consent does not require unanimity, agreement, or endorsement. It means one has no objections to moving forward as proposed and a commitment to act in accordance with the policy. There may still be concerns or other preferred options, but these can be tested based on information obtained from implementing the policy. The objective is to move forward with the best action available at the moment.

Objections must be based on reasons why a policy will affect one’s ability to implement the decision: A proposal that makes our work more difficult  and will decrease our effectiveness. A decision to adopt an action that conflicts with the group’s purpose. An objection must address the purpose of the group and our own ability to work toward it.

Consent is required within the group putting the policy into effect. Not everyone must consent to all decisions.

Policy Decisions Are Distributed

Since policy decisions are made by those who must implement them, they are distributed to all parts or levels of an organization.  In organizations governed by an autocratic hierarchy, policy decisions are made by the board and top management. The top leadership makes the decisions about how the loading dock operates even if they have never been on the loading dock, much less worked there.

In addition to the loading dock workers understanding their work better, they will understand their policies better if they set them and will be able to adjust them as necessary. There is no waiting for the general manager to get around to addressing the problem.

Self-Organization

Policy decisions include financial, physical, and human resources decisions. Where will money be spent?  Which roles and responsibilities do we need filled? What is our daily schedule or deadlines? Or what social activities will be planned?  Who will fill roles? What are our standards of quality?

The right to make policy decisions is necessary for a group to self-organize, to self-manage.

What Is Sociocracy?

Gerard Endenburg, Yukon Conference, 2010
Gerard Endenburg, Yukon Conference, 2010

Literally, sociocracy means the sovereignty of the socius: I myself, the next person, the alter ego, the otherness. From a structural point of view this corresponds with the definition of sociocracy as a situation where the principle of consent predominates or is socially all–determining in the sense that it governs the making of decisions at all levels of society. The sociocratic circle organization is a cybernetic means of making this possible and then, as a dynamic balance, it maintains, regulates, and develops it.

From Sociocracy as Social Design  by Gerard Endenburg (English Translation, 1998)

Consensus and Personal Preferences

Personally I object to the use of the word “block” as synonymous with “objection” and this entry explains some of the reasons why.

What is a block? This is not a facetious question. If this is the word people want to use, what does it mean? From the accounts on the Cohousing-L email discussion list between cohousing communities that  uniformly use consent/consensus decision-making, block is used to describe an objection is more a veto. The discussion goes like this:

First the word block is used to describe someone who after much discussion still doesn’t consent to a proposal. Almost inevitably, a block is explained as being based on personal preferences. It’s the personal preferences that seem to be the problem. A “valid block” has to be based on community values. If it isn’t, it is based on personal preferences it is an “invalid block.”

Since a block is an objection based on personal preferences, rather than community values, a skilled facilitator is needed to step in and “fix” it. A magician to assert community values. Someone who can persuade the unpersuadable.

Objections in sociocracy are based on logical arguments and not personal preferences, but in a community where one lives, an objection based on personal preferences may be perfectly logical and thus valid. For example, the right to object to a tree being planted in front of the only window on the north side of your unit. Since your unit only has two exterior walls, north and south, and your personal preferences are to have light and to be able to see the rest of the community from your window, do you have the right to object or are these personal preferences? Others  want a tree there to balance the landscape and address water drainage issues, but these are also personal preferences because there are other ways to balance the landscape and solve drainage issues. Whose personal preferences are based  on community values and whose are not?

Values are important. They give purpose to life. They make us human. Values are necessary, but they are not sufficient. Values have to be translated into actions before they are more than words that make us feel good. For example:

— We value the lives of birds so we will feed them all winter.
— We value the lives of birds so we won’t allow outdoor cats.
— We value the lives of birds so we will have a large bird sanctuary in the common house.
— We value the lives of birds so we will have outdoor cats to reduce the population to a manageable level rather than having them starve.

All of these actions are based on valuing birds. Many actions will rely on  many personal preferences about how to express values. Which result best addresses the value. The key is on what basis will success be determined? Feeding birds all winter is considered to be dangerous to birds because they become dependent on being fed. If the action is to restrict outdoor cats, will that accomplish the purpose? Is a bird sanctuary really any life for a bird? How in danger is the bird population anyway?

What is the aim of valuing birds? Why do you value them? An action is something you can measure. Without measuring whether the aim is being achieved, it won’t be clear that it is being accomplished.  The what and the how is the decision that can be done on the basis of logical argument and then improved by trial and error.  But the aim has to be clear for that to happen, not just the values.

Conditions for Consensus Decision-Making

The people who consent to a proposal also have personal preferences. Weren’t their preferences blocking the preferences of the person who is labelled as blocking? Isn’t this just majority vote but the majority wants everyone to go along because another value is consensus in decision-making?

Consensus decision-making only works when

  1. everyone has a common aim,
  2. is willing and able to deliberate together long enough to resolve all objections, and
  3. chooses to make decisions with this group.

It is said that consensus can’t work in cohousing communities because people can’t choose with whom they make decisions. But the premise of cohousing is that one has chosen to make decisions with everyone who lives there—a diverse, self-selecting group. That group, however, still needs to have a common aim in relation to the decision being made and they still have to sit together long enough to resolve objections.

Consent and objections in sociocracy are based on the ability of the person to support/respect/implement the actions required by the proposal. The ability to do that may indeed be based on personal preferences. If planting  a tree in front of a window causes a person to move away because they can’t do their job of being a good community member, whose  actions have supported the values of the community.

Vision, Mission, Aim

Values relate to a vision statement. A vision is a dream. It’s what you want the world to be. A vision is intangible and not a good plan for action. Measurements based on visions and values will always be based on person preference. You need more: a Mission.

For those reading this website, the mission will probably be cohousing or cohousing plus ___. Plus a bakery, an eco-village, a home school, etc.

The vision and mission together lead to the aim. The aim is the tangible basis for taking action. Actions can be measured to determine their success. Did that action achieve our aim? How do we need to improve it?

I think groups may be trying to make decisions based on their vision, not their aim. What is called a “personal preference” is really a values issue and can’t be measured as valid or invalid. Though values may guide actions, only actions and results can be measured. The resolution of objections should be focused on the aim of the proposal, how to accomplish it, and how to measure the results. Is the aim shared by everyone? Who decided that?

If there is no common aim, how can there be a consensus? If the proposal has no aim, no measurable result, how can it be useful?

The problem with “blocks” is usually:

  1. lack of a common or well-defined aim and/or
  2. avoidance of using a more appropriate decision-making method, like preference rating or majority vote.

Unless the group can meet all the conditions necessary to use consensus, “blocks” will continue to occur as the result of trying to use a decision-making method that isn’t appropriate.

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.

Collaborative Governance

I’ve been looking for a new description for Sociocracy.info 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.”

Definition of Consensus Decision-Making

This is the standard definition of consensus used since the 1960s and 1970s, and probably before. It was published in 1981 in United Judgement: The Handbook of Consensus Decision Making by the Center for Conflict Resolution.

The goal of consensus is a decision that is consented to by all members. Of course, full consent does not mean that everyone must be completely satisfied with the final outcome—in fact, total satisfaction is rare. The decision must be acceptable enough, however, that all will agree to support the group in choosing it.

This handbook was printed in typescript and circulated in various forms years before publication and is considered one of the classics. It was reprinted in 1999 by the Fellowship for Intentional Community and is available from their bookstore. They also have other books and reprints from Communities Magazine on consensus decision-making.

Consent vs Consensus : Laird Schaub on Sociocracy

Laird Schaub
Laird Schaub

Laird Schaub helped found and has been living in Sandhill Farm, an intentional, income sharing community in Rutledge, Missouri since 1974. His community is very small, less than 10 adults, but his experience is very broad. He has been doing training and consulting in governance and consensus decision-making since 1987. He gives several workshops on decision-making, facilitation, proposal writing, delegation, etc., at the annual Cohousing Association Conferences. He is the Executive Secretary  and Development Coordinator of the Foundation for Intentional Communities (FIC) and writes frequently for Communities Magazine. He travels most of the year to work with communities and organizations all over the United States. He does intensive workshops with facilitators who meet once or twice a month over an extended period of time. In short, he’s on the road a lot, on his feet a lot, and has seen a lot. He is also very well-respected.

Laird’s blog is Community and Conensus. In his Monday 18 August 2014 post, “Critique of Sociocracy,” he presents his “reservations” which are deep and well-stated. Some are quite justified and others misunderstandings. Just like anything else, it’s easy to get the wrong information. This is the first of several posts addressing both the points I think are valid and those that are at least partly in error. I’ve divided them into separate posts where the subject changes. Laird has 6 points of contention.

Stalking Consensus

Laird’s reservations are expressed “paying particular attention to how this contrasts with consensus, which is the main horse that sociocracy is stalking.”

Well, true and not true. It is true that for many years consent vs consensus was taught as if they were totally different animals. Not just horse vs zebra, it was elephant vs fruit fly. Having worked with consensus for more than 30 years and having studied the teachings of the major consensus trainers, I never understood this. Consent is given by one person and consensus is the result of multiple instances of consent. Both consent and consensus mean agreement to proceed, not necessarily full agreement to exclusion of other possibilities.

That’s the only meaningful distinction between them that I can find: the singular and the collective plural. Consent vs consensus is more likely to be a comparison between the worst understanding of consensus with the best understanding of consent.

The Singular and the Collective Plural

The distinction between the singular and the collective plural, however, can be meaningful: The emphasis in sociocracy on gaining the consent of each person, “no objections,” rather than the consensus of the group. In sociocracy, the focus is on each individual and their ability to consent to a decision. In groups using consensus, the focus is more likely to be on the ability of each person as part of a group to develop and accept a group decision. “In the best interests of the community” is often heard in groups using consensus.

In sociocracy the standard of consent is more likely to be a question to an individual “can you work with this” or “is this within your range of tolerance.” Not particularly friendly phrases those, but I think one can see the difference.

I’m exaggerating a bit to show what can often be a subtle difference. On the other hand, the recognition of the individual is important as a measurement:

  • In a small community where everyone lives-in, the standard will be one’s ability to still want to live in the community if the change under consideration is made. “Will you still love having coffee on your balcony in the morning?”
  • In an intentional community devoted to expressing strong humanitarian or environmental living standards, the question will be “Does this activity violate your sense of the appropriateness in terms of your personal or the community values.”
  • On the factory floor, the focus will be on one’s ability to perform their job if this change is made. “Will you still be able to move comfortably to finish the final process?”

A Practical vs a Higher Purpose

The focus in all three contexts—a friendly live-in community, a political or values-based community, and a workplace—is whether effectiveness will be impaired.  But “effectiveness” in each case is based on a different desired outcome. Consent emphasizes the understanding that a group is a group of individuals who all have to be able to fully commit to a purpose before it can be accomplished optimally. People who use consensus not infrequently have in their hearts and minds a more spiritual union. A commitment to a “higher purpose,” one larger than the individual. Higher even than the group.

A sociocratic organization could adopt a higher purpose statement as a policy decision. Such perceptions are not banned in sociocracy. It is used in a variety of religious organizations. But that belief is not inherent in sociocracy as it is sometimes felt to be in the traditional practice of consensus.

The practice of consensus itself is often regarded as indicating that this group of people is more advanced or of higher morals. This makes tradiitonal consensus unworkable in a workplace. In this sense, consent vs consensus is a meaningful understanding, if not a real difference.

Workplace vs. Social Action Groups

Gerard Endenburg developed the Sociocratic Circle-Organization Method to reproduce the traditional consensus model he had lived with at Kees and Betty Boeke’s residential school, the Children’s Community Workshop. Instead of everyone caring for each other, Endenburg needed a definition that worked in the high pressure, fast moving production of electrical  engineering systems. People are hired in businesses and other organizations to fulfill roles with specific responsibilities, not to care for the other engineers, whom they probably don’t even know.

In engineering and manufacturing decisions are based on the responsibilities of the person to fulfill their roles and responsibilities, not a perceived higher purpose. But overtime the empathy required to understand the role requirements of each person and appreciation for their insights and support, do create a tighter bond between people.

Because the Sociocratic Circle-Organization Method is taught as it developed in Endenburg Electric, and in many other businesses all over the world since the 1970s,  the engineering and business vocabularies often overtake the fundamental purpose of using consensus in the first place: collaboration and respect instead of competition and disdain.

Comparing an Elephant to a Fruit Fly

The major distinction is that sociocratic decision-making operates within a governance structure designed to support consensus decision-making. Groups that use traditional consensus typically make many decisions as a full group or are completely flat with all decisions made by the full group. Some have a governance structure loosely and sometimes directly based on conventional social and governance structures designed for majority decision-making. Because of this, they are limited in size.

While comparing consent to traditional consensus isn’t a very meaningful, comparing sociocracy with traditional consensus really is like comparing elephants to fruit flies. One is a governance method and the other a decision-making method and they work synergistically.

Policy vs Operational Decisions

Another difference is that consensus is specifically used only for policy decisions. The operations leader makes  day-to-day operations decisions within the policies set by the workgroup. This takes advantage the power of efficient decision-making in the moment and collectively made policy decisions by all members of the work group.

Groups using traditional consensus tend to make almost all decisions as a group and delegation is feared as a re-introduction of autocratic, hierarchical control.

Groups using traditional consensus are also unlikely to apply cybernetic principles or use scientific methods for evaluating the effectiveness of their decisions, but that is a subject for another day. Many of the practices and processes used by sociocracy are also best practices used generally in businesses and organizations.

No Magic in Decision-Making

Neither have  magical qualities. Decision-making can be hard no matter what you call it or how you structure it. If it were easy, it wouldn’t need to be taught and wouldn’t need a governance structure at all.

These are both the reasons why sociocracy has been perceived as “stalking consensus” and the reasons why it is not. Sociocracy is an elephant that is dependent on the fruit fly.

(Part 2 is still unwritten and given the amount of time taken to write this, it may be a few days.)

Understanding Objections & Beheaviments

Translations

There is a conversation on the [email protected] list about the meaning of the word bezwaar, the Dutch word that has been translated as objection. The question is whether objection is a good translation and how other translations might affect understanding objections and consent. The translations into other languages and those in different Dutch/English dictionaries suggest something other than objection. In English, objection means no, “This decision can’t go forward.” In other languages it has the meaning of difficulty, problem, trouble, bother, nuisance, encumbrance.

Objections are one of the sticky points in sociocratic decision-making and in full group consensus decision-making. To avoid what seem to be “irrevocable blocks” that are in effect vetoes, people ask:

  • On what basis are objections valid?
  • Who decides, the person or the group?
  • Can the group overturn an objection

Responding to these questions has led to many different qualifications of consent. By limiting objections to certain conditions, the principle of consent in practice is no longer effective.

Meanings Beyond Translations

Even if we end up using objection in English, the understanding of the meanings of bezwaar in various languages is useful in explaining what an objection is. Bezwaar is more nuanced and related to personal abilities to support, honor, respect, and feel good about the decision, not to feel “weighed down” by it, feeling a heaviness. One purpose of requiring consent is to avoid dampening down enthusiasm and energy for achieving the aim of the group.

The classic example of the spark plug “objecting” by ceasing to function is mechanical. It demonstrates a physical inability to function. This is analogous to “I object to buying that new machine because there won’t be enough room for my machine to work efficiently.” It’s a physical reality that is easily measured and accepted or corrected. Most proposals outside of manufacturing, however, are not that clear. They most often require addressing personal feelings, beheaviments.

Satisficing

It’s much more comfortable to have my colleagues consent to a proposal that I disagree with, but still respect as an ethical, reasonable choice than one I’m embarrassed about or think is unintelligent. A choice between options when it is not clear that one or the other is the best decision under the circumstances can be tested and corrected if necessary.

Sometimes the decision involves developing one option until the group thinks it is ready to implement. The decision is when? A standard for these decisions is  satisfying, one that is both satisfying and sufficient. At the point where the solution is sufficient, the group would probably do better to move forward than trying for perfection. But when the deciders are people and not spark plugs, the solution must also be satisfying, not just sufficient.

Beheavied & Lack of Consent

An example from my community is the conflict between watering the lawn and not watering the lawn. Some people wanted the lawn to be green and nice because our children play on it almost daily. It’s a question of aesthetics for some but it is also a desire for the pleasure of touch and feel and fun.

A second group didn’t have strong feelings either way except that they didn’t want the conflict to continue. (“Studies have shown” that on most issues, something like 40% will be in this group.)

A third group, by far the smallest, was deeply embarrassed to have their friends see the obviously watered lawn. It was a waste of resources. It reflected badly not just on them but also on the cohousing movement that claiming to support energy efficiency, solar energy, sustainably harvested wood, etc. It was a professional, philosophical , and personal issue for them. A deep beheaviment.
The third group also did not have children and had no personal investment in children playing on lawns or dirt.

Every one respected the feelings of the third group and many had shared the same feelings in the past. Then they had to face the reality of their own children and 20 others needing a place to play.

Emotional & Technical Solutions

The solution was that the third group, being energy scientists with major physics and math backgrounds, agreed to check the rainfall every week and do the calculations on what amount of extra water was required. This way we could use the smallest amount of water necessary to keep the grass alive with no dirt patches. Minimal water once a week would also cause the grass to grow deeper roots to reach underground water sources, of which ours are abundant. We are built on springs.

This solution came about because each side paid attention to the beheaviment of the other. The scientifically based solution resolved the problem in a way that removed the heavy feelings of all groups. But the scientific solution would not have been found or accepted without recognizing the beheavied feelings. The argument didn’t have to be become an objection before it gets attention.

An understanding of the meaning and origins of words gives a deeper understanding of what they mean and how they came to mean it. This can point the way to better resolutions of  beheaviments.

Switching to Sociocracy in Cohousing Communities

 

Ecovillage of Loudoun County
Ecovillege of Loudoun County in Virginia was one of the first in the to adopt sociocracy when it began in the 1990s.

As is true with all governance changes, it is easier to begin with sociocracy than to switch midstream. Communities tend to stick with “the devil they know” rather than take a chance on a new one, but more and more and more communities are switching full scale or adopting some of the principles and practices.

Except for those who have switched to sociocracy, cohousing communities use full group consensus as their primary method of decision-making. Decisions are typically made in meetings open to the full membership and with the consent of each person present. As cohousing communities have grown larger, from 12 to more than 50 households, and include increasingly more diverse populations, full group consensus has become ineffective for many, if not most. Making decisions with less than 50 people is very different from 100 or more.

In addition, many communities are more complex. They now have programs that do not involve all members—gardens, chickens, home schooling, yoga groups, etc. Consensus requires a shared aim. Delegating decisions to those who share these aims is a reasonable use of everyone’s time and energy.

Switching to Sociocracy

It is a misconception that communities switching to sociocracy cannot have full group decision-making meetings. When delegating decisions to circles, communities can also delegate decisions to “full circle meetings”, meetings of all the circles. Annual budget approval, for example, is required to be made by all owners in condominiums in Washington DC. Since most cohousing communities are condominiums, this is probably true in other states as well. Another decision that might appropriately belong in a full circle meeting is changing the vision, mission, or aim.

Sociocracy allows communities to keep the collaborative and inclusive qualities of full group decision-making while providing a structure for delegating decisions to sub-groups—committees, teams, circles, etc. Policy decisions and a coordinating structure then guide the sub-groups.

Consent vs. Consensus

While I understand the reasons for opposing consensus with consent, I believe that in the end it is self-defeating. It becomes a battle of definitions and adds a new definition unnecessarily. This distracts from the purpose. By adopting sociocracy, a community adopts a decision-making structure in which consensus more effective. Its principles and practices shift the debate from stalemate to action. It helps organize large communities so they function more effectively as excellent places to live.

Sociocracy Strengthens Consensus

The sociocratic definition of consent is “no objections.” An objection means the proposed action cannot be taken until that objection is resolved—just as it is in full group consensus. Sociocracy uses “consent” to emphasize that the decision is being made by an individual based on their own ability to “live with” the decision. It isn’t based on a hypothetical or projected standard of the “good of the community” as full group consensus practices often does. An objection is made in the context of the aim of the decision, how it affects one’s own participation in the community, and its expression of the communities stated aims (if any).

Consent can be given when there are still concerns and unmet needs but sociocracy values action, moving forward, with what appears to be reasonable decision given the circumstances. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Concerns, limitations, fears, assumptions, etc.,  can be used to design measurements for evaluating the effects of the decision. Then it can be improved based on results.

The sociocratic circle-organization method is the only one that supports and invigorates consensus decision-making.

Originally written 6 January 2013
Substantially revised 19 April 2014

What Is Sociocracy and Why Do You Need it?

What is Sociocracy?

A quick answer to the question, What is Sociocracy? is that sociocracy is both:

  • A social ideal that values equality and the rights of people to decide the conditions under which they live and work, and
  • An effective method of organizing collaborative and productive organizations as associations, businesses, and governments, large and small.

In English-speaking countries, as a method of organization sociocracy is often called dynamic governance, but around the world is simply called sociocracy. Its founder called it the Sociocratic Circle-Organization Method (SCM).

Not Just a Statement of Values

Sociocracy shares the values of democracy

  • freedom and equality, and
  • the right and responsibility of self-determination.

But sociocracy doesn’t just state values. It goes deeper. It is a method of organization and decision-making that ensures those values are implemented. Its principles and practices are very different from parliamentary procedure and majority rule. Majority rule can lead to a divided society and promotes competition and dominance instead of coöperation and equality.

A Whole System Science Approach to Governance

Sociocracy is a whole systems approach to designing and leading organizations. It is based on principles, methods, and a structure that creates a resilient and coherent system,. It uses transparency, inclusiveness, and accountability to increase harmony, effectiveness, and productivity.

Sociocracy was conceived as applied Sociology. Sociology is a social science that studies social groups and how they function. It was to be a governance method based on information from sociologists. Sociocracy, developed with research and experimentation, has shown that people who live and work together are more likely to make good decisions for themselves than anyone else.

Sociocracy guarantees a society in which freedom and equality are determined by the people who have an active role in creating the conditions under which they live and work..

Consent Is Required for Policy Decisions

Requiring consent for policy decisions ensures that no member of a group or circle* can be ignored. All circles make the policy decisions that directly affect their own responsibilities. They are not reserved for top management, officers, or boards.

Policy decisions are agreements about how an organization will work. They govern how resources will be used, who will do which jobs, the standards of quality, etc. Within the policies of the larger organization, for example, the loading dock circle will decide the policies governing how the loading dock will work on a day-to-day basis.

Consent means “no objections.” Giving consent does not mean unanimity, agreement, or endorsement of the proposal.  Consent is given to moving forward, to supporting the policy as “worth trying until we have more information.”  Or “I can work with it.” Requiring consent ensures that a policy will be followed by everyone until there is reason to change it. Like budgets, policies are rarely in force forever.

As a member of any sociocratically governed organization, you are guaranteed of your ability to collaboratively decide your living and working conditions as a citizen, as an employee, as a member, as a neighbor, as a student.

Coordination and Management When Everyone Makes Policy Decisions

Within the policies of the larger organization. all work groups, chapters, departments, committees, etc., make their own policies. Day-to-day operational decisions are governed by policy decisions and are most often delegated to the leader of operations.

When a policy affects more than one circle, it is delegated to the coordinating or general management circle. The general management circle is composed of operations leaders and elected representatives from each circle. Each member of the coordinating circle has to give consent. This protects the circles from decisions that would affect their ability to do their work.

Instead of a board of directors, a sociocratic organization has a top circle that fulfills many of the functions of a traditional board except that it does not have absolute control over the organization. The top circle includes members of the coordinating circle, the president or CEO, and outside members who add financial and professional expertise. The responsibilities of the top circle include long-term planning and financial decisions that affect the organizations future.

So What Is Sociocracy?

It is a governance system designed to protect and apply the values that democracies cherish. Unlike current democracies, it is also a governance structure designed to make sure those values will be applied as equally as possible for everyone.

Search these words for more information on What is Sociocracy? and Why You Need It: consent, consensus, democracy, dynamic governance, majority vote, policy decisions, Sociocratic Circle-Organization Method (SCM)

Updated: 10 June 2016

Policy Decisions

The Heading of the Constitution of the United States.
The United States Constitution is an example of a policy statement. It states in broad terms what the government can and can’t do. It demonstrates that a policy statement can be amended. It can also be interpreted in differing ways as the meaning of words change. Most policy statements are much more easily updated than a nation’s constitution.

Policy decisions are defined in management theory as those decisions that define the basic principles of the organization and determine how it will develop and function in the future. Policies set the limits within which operational decisions are made. Examples include:

  • Vision, Mission, Aim
  • Budget and Finance Practices
  • Allocation of Resources
  • Organizational Structure
Policy decisions limit the actions an organization and its members can take without changing the policy.
In sociocracy, policy decisions are made by consent. Operational decisions are made within the limits set by policy decisions and may be made autocratically by the person in charge or by other means determined by the people whom the decisions affect.

Examples of Policy Statements

We set policies in our everyday lives without realizing it or writing them down. Examples include:

  • Deciding not to drink coffee or consume animal products
  • Pledging to complete  tax forms before their due date
  • Sending your children to public schools by choice
  • Deciding not to have children to devote time to political causes

In non-profit organizations the policies might include:

  • Following the IRS regulations that set requirements for 501c3 status to receive tax-deductible contributions
  • Limiting membership to professionals with a demonstrated expertise
  • Serving meals to the homeless
  • Using contributions only for administrative costs and not staff salaries

In business they might include:

  • Annual and departmental budgets
  • Employee compensation schedules
  • Union agreements
  • Future donations of money and employee time to charitable causes
  • Production of certain products and not others
  • Limiting sales and marketing to retail or wholesale customers

These are all decisions that define the scope of day-to-day  decisions about how we will conduct our personal or work lives, our operations.

Consensus: Community or Decision-Making

Q: Discussions of consensus on cohousing discussion lists seem to be focused on or limited to facilitated, time-bound, decision-making events rather than building a culture of relationships in a community. Is this intentional?

Questions about consensus generally do focus on the technicalities and problems of using consensus to make decisions in meetings. And building community is one objective of using consensus because it ensures that the interests of everyone will be taken into consideration. However, cohousing communities, as opposed to other kinds of intentional communities, try to avoid ideologies or anything that might appear to be an ideology. Cohousing groups also vary widely on the degree of community that is expected of members and members vary widely on how they participate in the community. Diversity is welcomed even in this respect, though perhaps not by all.

Since consensus (or sense of the meeting) and peace as daily practices are most often associated with the teachings of the Quaker church, anything reminiscent of this becomes touchy.

Even sociocracy (dynamic governance), the only governance method designed to use consensus decision-making tends to discuss it as a tool, not a socially desirable objective. The official sociocratic organization, the Sociocratisch Centrum in Rotterdam, and its certification program focus specifically on how to implement the method in to design and govern better organizations, not to produce a better society. Even equivalence is presented simply as the best way to create a harmonious organization. Their desire is to have sociocracy taught in as many kinds of organizations as possible and to develop a sociocratic society. This aim requires not adopting any cultural messages that might be interpreted as religious. This is one reason they prefer to refer to “consent” decision-making and to avoid the word consensus. Its connotations are too inclusive.

While sociocratic methods can be used simply as management tools, the underlying values of equivalence and harmony ultimately produce a worldview that is more inclusive and mindful. A leading consultant in Montreal, Gilles Charest, has extensive experience in Gestalt psychology. He teaches the principles with a decided focus on personality development and the way the principles address people’s need for attachment, security, and influence (being listened to). His leadership training has long focused more on psychology and sociology than on organizational engineering.

So the avoidance of discussing the contributions of consensus to community building are not necessarily because anyone wants to avoid building community. It is to be as inclusive as possible and this requires not imposing values or expectations of unanimity, and not interpreting harmony as agreement. It’s a difficult balance.

Stand Asides

Stand asides are a time-honored practice in majority vote decision-making. They are used when a person wants their vote recorded, but can’t vote yes, doesn’t want to vote no, and doesn’t want to abstain. Usually it means the person disagrees but has agreed to stand aside and allow the decision to go forward. Sometimes it means that they have a conflict of interest and want the record to show that they were not voting, but abstentions are used to record this. Abstentions, however, are often considered to be weak no’s.

In consensus decision-making stand asides serve no purpose. Each member of the decision-making body has an obligation to register an objections in order to improve the decision. All information is important. The only considerations are arguments for and against the proposal. If a person has no arguments against the proposal they are consenting to its passage.

Consent doesn’t mean agreement. At minimum consent means the proposal seems to be a good one and worth trying. Even if a person has been out of touch and has no direct knowledge of the proposal and is not affected by it, they are still consenting by allowing it to go forward.

Consent isn’t an endorsement. No one will interpret the lack of standing aside to be active championing of the proposal. During discussion, each person has an opportunity to explain why they are consenting or objecting. This is sufficient to clarify any misunderstandings.

Consent only means the person isn’t objecting.

“Blocks” & Vetos in Consensus Decision-Making

Picture of a Cement BlockI find the word block in consensus decision-making destructive. It is particularly counter-productive when used to refer to all objections, rather than seemingly unresolvable objections.

Objections do feel like blocks when after hours of discussion a person or persons will not consent — I find myself feeling this too. And sometimes when I object, in my gut I really want to block. I don’t want to argue the point, I just want to BLOCK. The problem is that when I use the word block, I create something fixed and hard. A cement block. A blockhead.  To be blocked is to be stopped dead in your tracks. All reasoning stops.

Emotion Substituted for Argument

Most often block is used as an epithet and slathered with emotion. The idea of logical argument is lost.

When I am tempted to accuse someone of using the word block, I am usually describing my feelings, not those of the other person. It’s my label. I created the block, not the person who is objecting. I’ve never heard person with objections say, “I’m blocking so forget it” or “I’m a blocker.” No one wears a T-shirt that says, “2011 World Record. Blocked 12 Decisions.” People who participate in groups that make decisions by consensus normally do want to consent. It’s uncomfortable to have to object, and emotions are unleashed obscuring the ability to argue logically.

“Blocks” Are Really Vetoes

A true block is really a veto. It isn’t subject to discussion and resolution. It can be over-ruled but not resolved.

Vetoes don’t have to be explained and are absolute. They are done. No discussion. Someone who vetoes an action is behaving as an outsider, not as part of the group. They are taking all power for themselves, leaving everyone else powerless. A veto represents power-over thinking, not power-with.

A veto means the decision-making environment is no longer open to making a better decision—one that will allow address everyone’s needs and allow the group to move forward as a group.

Objections Are Logical Arguments

An objection means that a person cannot work enthusiastically and energetically toward the aim of the group if the proposed decision is accepted. An objector is allowed to say, “If you make this decision, it will negatively affect my ability to be fully committed the organization.” The task then becomes finding a reasonable counter-proposal. One that will resolve the objection and still meet the aim of the original proposal.

Or find a way to obtain more information to test the objection—and to test the premise on which others are consenting. Consent also needs to be tested. A sole objector may be the person who has examined the situation more closely than those consenting.

A question that also needs to be asked in consensus decision-making is whether there is a shared aim. If not it is less likely that an objection will be resolved in any meaningful or lasting way. It is more likely to become a veto. If a person is vetoing, then the group must reconsider its aim or the aim of the decision. If the aim is not shared by everyone, consensus is unlikely to be a workable method of decision-making.

Participation in the process of working toward a shared aim distinguishes an objection from a veto.

Objections: Paramount, Principled, or Otherwise

In decision-making, one consents or one objects. Consent is defined as no objections. To object means no consent It’s very simple.

Consent has no modifiers so why should objections? No one asks for paramount or principled consent.

What would paramount consent be? Would we ask, “Are you consenting because this proposed action is the most important thing in the world right now?”

Do we examine the basis on which people are consenting? No, we don’t. But if someone objects and continues to object, we want to create qualifications for objections and tell them they can only object based on these qualifications. Objections get in our way so we try to blunt them. Consent doesn’t so we want to avoid looking at it too closely.

In terms of adopting a proposal, of making a decision, neither consent nor objections can be qualified. But they must be argued.

A proposal usually contains arguments in favor of an action and we assume that those consenting to it are consenting on the basis of those arguments. Many objections have usually been resolved in the proposal forming process. If objections remain, they can only be resolved by addressing the arguments for and against the proposal. The proposal is the subject. Objections can only exist in relation to the proposal and its affect on the individual and the group if it is adopted.

Why should we consent? Why should we object? Why we are consenting is just as vital as why we object. Rounds balance the objections with the consents.

If the group begins focusing on whether an objection is “allowed” or if it is really “paramount” (a word I could never get a grasp of), it has moved away from examining the content of the proposal to the motivations and character of the objector. The focus on the substance, the quality of the proposal and the quality of the argument is lost.

Stick to the proposal and addressing arguments, for as well as against.

Equating Consensus and Non-Violent Communication (NVC) with Governance

Often heard: “We don’t use sociocracy or dynamic governance; we use consensus.” Or, “We don’t use dynamic governance; we use non-violent communication (NVC).

The simple problem with these oppositions is that neither consensus nor NVC are governance methods. They don’t come with a set of principles or practices for structuring an organization, managing operations, and ensuring that the appropriate people are making the necessary decisions.

Consensus is a method for making decisions, just like majority vote is used to make decisions.

NVC is a technique for clarifying one’s feelings and needs, and can be very helpful when making decisions.

To say that you govern or organize yourselves using either of these is to say you have no governance structure. In the case of consensus, you have a decision-making method, which is usually used by the whole group participating. In the case of NVC, you have is a method for each member to clarify their needs and attempt to have them met.

So What Is Governance?

A governance method determines:  Who are the decision-makers and what decisions can they can make. How decisions are made. How resources—money and people—will be allocated. How policies be established and changed. How the work of the organization will be done. Who will determine what that work is. Most of our organizations, of course, don’t do this very clearly. Or they do it from time to time but then things change and the policies and practices aren’t updated.

Organizations, like systems, need a coherent structure of relationships between parts and a clear flow of information and resources. A governance method is necessary to establish and maintain that structure. Neither consensus nor NVC provide this.

My Pivotal Consensus Experience

In 1972 with a group of parents forming a cooperative school, predominantly young Yale faculty members who had moved to town to join a new college. We were committed to diversity and having a hard time recruiting people of color and from a different socio-economic class.

We were having an equally hard time finding appropriate space that we could afford. This was long before charter schools so we were funding the whole thing ourselves. We had been offered a space in a Presbyterian church in the center of the city, just where we wanted to be. We had had hours of discussion. Everyone consented to accept the lease except one very young African American single mother. No one wanted to either pressure her to consent or disregard her opinion or to lose her from the group. We had met several times in the previous two weeks and were exhausted, ready to take anything. It was after midnight when we finally agreed to sleep on it and meet again the next night.

After the meeting as we all went to our cars the conversations were about what we would do if she didn’t change her mind. No one agreed with her reasons but some thought we should give up the space in order to empower her personally and prove that we were serious about diversity. Others found this condescending and patronizing.

When we reassembled the next night, everyone was tense and not meeting each other’s eyes. We started the round with the young woman. She said she was willing to respect the group’s decision but still felt strongly that it would be a mistake.

One by one, every person in the room sincerely agreed with her. The space was in the basement of an all white church that was fairly conservative. Most parent cooperative schools then had been started in reaction to segregation or the teaching of evolution in schools. We would be reinforcing that view of our school if we chose that space — even though we would have a separate entrance and an address on another street. Even though we were going to be an open school and had hired teachers with fairly radical ideas, there would also be pressure to conform. It wouldn’t be a long term home and would be a bad start.

The self-assured optimism of the educated elite that believed it could change the minds of anyone with their successful progressive school and rational arguments, no matter how different their values, had melted overnight into her realism. She knew from her experience and her perspective that these people wouldn’t change — they liked who they were and it was a church where they had full control. They would be more than we could bear when we were still so new and untested.

We found other space shortly afterward.

One thing I’ve learned is that few groups are willing to spend the amount of time and listening required to work out this level of consensus. Perhaps in cohousing the aims are too diverse. Pre-move-in the task is huge and complex but the aim focused. We set aside our other aims. After move-in, all the personal aims we had deferred reemerge and exist in one place. With 65+ adults, there are a lot of aims. People with strong personal aims elsewhere don’t have that much the time or energy to spend on community aims unless they consciously make and preserve room for them.

Consent & Responsibility

In dynamic governance there is no option to stand aside — the only options are consent or object. If you don’t have tangible objections, ones that can be teased out and addressed, then you consent. It maybe a passive consent, “I don’t see any reason not to do this”, or an active consent, “I really think this is a good idea.” Both are consent.

We have members who insist on having a stand aside option, in my opinion, because they don’t want the responsibility of making a decision. They always want more time, more information, more reassurance. The status quo doesn’t require them to take responsibility. It just is what it is.

We have a lot of people who don’t want to make decisions so they don’t come to meetings. They are happy to have others make the decisions and they will abide by them.

But the stand asides are different. They want to actively be on record as not taking responsibility for this decision. Even if you have come in late and don’t know anything about the issue, you can consent to allow the group to move forward. Standing aside doesn’t stop the decision, so why do it?

In consensus decision-making each person is responsible for the decisions they allow to go forward. Accepting that responsibility is hard. What if I’m wrong? How can I consent to a budget if I have no concept of budgeting and can’t imagine being responsible for spending $200,000 a year on facilities maintenance?

Because consent can be given for a million reasons. This is why I like to know why other people are consenting. My decision is based on theirs as well as on my own. If Joe is consenting to a proposal to do xxx because he believes xxx is a good idea or if he is consenting because he knows xxx is a bad idea but “people have to learn,” I need to know that because my decision is informed by his. I consent as an individual, but consensus represents the consent of many.

I consent if I know nothing but trust that those making the proposal do know something or have consulted experts. I recently consented to a proposal that I have no faith in at all but those making the proposal are acting in good faith and have consulted the dubious, in my view, but only experts that exist on the subject. The damage, if any, to the facilities will be minimal if they are wrong. If the solution is too labor intensive, it will die a slow death anyway. People know my logic and have decided to move forward.

When we decided to accept the gift of a fountain when for our cohousing community, I objected because I had lived in a condominium with a fountain. It was constant maintenance and caused conflict for residents because of the noise and the expense of repairing it. Even with a full staff, it was often left on all night to the irritation of those who couldn’t sleep. I relayed my experience, laid out my questions, and assured myself that everyone had considered them and was aware of potential problems. All the problems have occurred, but I understand what was important to people — the romantic idea of a fountain and what they regarded as a work of art in the piazza. This was something most had never imagined they would have. That alone was worth the aggravation, and for some people, still is, even though it is usually turned off.

It’s a lot easier to allow others to make decisions so you can complain, but when you consent you are taking responsibility. That is a new experience for many. One way to handle it is to accept that decisions are based on the best knowledge available at the time, and can be changed. Measure results, and improve the decision. You are doing the best you can do. And so is everyone else.