Tag Archives: Laird Schaub

Addressing Emotions: Laird Schaub on Sociocracy

Laird Schaub’s blog is Community and Consensus. 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 second of several posts addressing the points I think are valid and those that are at least partly in error.

Emotional Input

EmoticonsOne of Laird Schaub’s criticisms of sociocracy is that it  “does not address emotional input.” I think this depends partly, at least, on what one defines as “emotional input.” One person’s input can be considered personal and overwrought and another’s perfectly logical depending on who is doing the interpreting and labeling. But let’s assume we are talking about objections that seem temperamental, idiosyncratic, heated, etc., with no logical foundation or argument.

Any topic one cares about is likely to raise emotions whether it is a budget issue, loud music at 3:00 am, having a television accessible to children 24/7, or  eating meat. People care about things. That’s at least one point of living, right?

I’m not sure any governance system has a method of addressing emotions any more than it has a method for addressing global warming. Governance methods address how an organization will do the work of the organization. They are designed to steer a group of people toward an aim. It is quite likely that many people will have strong emotions about how to do that.

Addressing Emotions

Is addressing emotional input any different from addressing any other input?

The process in sociocracy and many other collaborative groups is to clarify concerns or objections and look for ways to resolve them. The input that most would label emotional might take more time during the clarification process than addressing a perceived budget problem. The budget problem might take more time and research in the resolving objections process.

Sociocracy has developed a happy handshake relationship with Non-Violent Communication (NVC) for the identification and resolution of feelings. Many sociocracy trainers are also teaching NVC. The technique is helpful in addressing the feelings attached to issues.

When emotions are felt to be overwhelming in any group, they are often handled personally by friends and facilitators, or by calling in a process consultant, like Laird. In part, the expertise of process consultants is sorting out emotions, the emotions about the emotions, and the underlying causes of emotions. One instance in which consultants are called in almost everywhere is a crisis.

The focus in a crisis is on restoring order when people are devastated by events. While the ultimate aim might be to get back to accomplishing their work, the immediate aim is emotional support. A sociocratic trainer might  come in to organize delivering supplies, making decisions about housing, etc.  Psychologists, grief workers, and Laird would come in to process emotional reactions and shock.

That Said…

Like Laird, I have also heard people say, “If you use sociocracy all the emotional stuff ends or never arises.” Right. That’s a hopeful person.

I agree that sociocracy is too trusting in saying that all will go well when the process is understood. The process provides a place for everyone to speak and raise objections. The problem is that many people do not know how or are afraid to express objections which are often full of feeling. There is the tired criticism that some people dominate discussions. Well, they can only do that if other people are silent. Sometimes they are just filling a void.

Rounds give people a time to speak and more people do raise concerns using that process. Some people need more than an opportunity.  They don’t have experience speaking in groups and have probably spent most of their lives being discouraged from disagreeing with anything. It takes time to adjust to the fact that they can, should, and are expected to speak up. Even to have an opinion.

Though many people are more insecure in groups than I think has been addressed in the sociocracy, it is also true that many sociocracy trainers have extensive experience facilitating and working with emotions in groups.  The fact that emotional processing isn’t addressed as a separate topic doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.

In the same way as choosing a  mediator, matching a consultant’s experience and interests to the needs of the situation can be important. Some trainers are more experienced in implementing sociocracy in corporate and institutional settings and some are more familiar with community groups and small organizations.  There is the method which may be standard, but then there is application to the problem at hand which is practice and is formed by experience.

Emotional Reactions Fade with Success

People bring their fears and anxieties and personal preferences to sociocratic circles and the workplace just as they bring them to any other context. When the number of group members who have learned to focus on the aim, listen to each other, and resolve objections reaches a tipping point, friction will be reduced. But certain personalities and differing aims will clash sooner or later.

The research by Richard Hackman at Harvard shows that teams work better together when they focus on and achieve success. All the other problems blamed for team dysfunction fade—personality clashes, inequality of effort, lack of expertise, etc., suddenly have no meaning. The identified problems are still there; they  don’t go anywhere. They just no longer impede productivity.

Hackman found  that addressing emotions, personalities, and contributions is less effective than focusing on an aim and accomplishing it. Since that is a prime purpose in sociocracy, it leads not only to effectiveness but to harmony—which sociocracy was originally designed to accomplish. A harmonious workplace was Gerard Endenburg’s first aim.

Hackman’s “Six Common Misconceptions about Teamwork” addresses in part the issue of what does and doesn’t  make a successful team.

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.)