Rise of the sociocrats

Over the last several years, Yukon College has slowly been adopting a new organizational structure called sociocracy. It is nothing short of a revolution in the long-established power structure seen in many institutions.

Over the last several years, Yukon College has slowly been adopting a new organizational structure called sociocracy.

It is nothing short of a revolution in the long-established power structure seen in many institutions.

Here’s how it works: An autocracy is a top-down decision-making organization – rule by a minority. A democracy is the rule of the majority. But a sociocracy is rule by the group, meaning members seek the highest achievable consensual solution to a problem.

If you’re part of a sociocracy, you’re never going to be sidelined by a decision made in a crisis.

The methods of achieving one are pretty straightforward. You make decisions by consensus rather than a vote.

A large organization will have many circles who achieve consensus within themselves and then pass the decisions up the ladder to the next circle in a hierarchy. And elections are by consensus too.

This may sound familiar. Many political and social aspects of First Nation cultures involve consensus. Nunavut and the Northwest Territories use consensus in their legislatures, and so did the Yukon before 1978.

Depending on your boss or parents, your company or family might be pretty sociocratic as well.

But for the most part, power flowing from the strong or the majority has long been preferred because it is easier and seemingly more efficient.

“Your boss can ignore you and he has the power to do that,” said Gerard Endenburg, one of the leading thinkers behind sociocracy, who spoke at a conference last week at Yukon College.

“That is what we are trying to change – that you and your boss can be equivalent in policymaking.”

Endenburg, who hails from the Netherlands, imported the ideas of peace activist Kees Boeke into his engineering company in the 1970s, giving sociocracy a foothold in the corporate world.

“Our conditioning is enormous and we organize our societies worldwide in the democratic or autocratic way,” said Gilles Charest, another visiting expert from Quebec. “You are in the prison of your organization and to step out of this prison is our task. That’s huge.”

If this is all getting a bit abstract, consider the example of John Buck, the leading American sociocracy crusader.

He’s helped a Virginia company that makes specialized plastic use sociocratic principles.

When the US economy took a nosedive in 2008, the company was in crisis.

Buyers who had worked with the company for 15 years were cancelling orders in droves.

“So they had a general circle meeting,” said Buck.

The looked at their assets, including staff, and realized they had to make deep cuts.

“In terms of the layoffs, the discussion went like this, ‘You just had a kid, I have more resources, so I’ll go get the employment insurance’ and they decided among them who was going to be laid off.

“And the people who chose the layoff route still hung around, brought in cookies and stayed connected.

“That’s the opposite of a friend of mine who worked for 20 years at a Baltimore newspaper, and who found out she didn’t work there anymore when her computer didn’t work and she was walked out of the building.”

In a sociocracy, people are meant to be more involved in their jobs. Proponents believe sociocracy makes you happier, more enthusiastic and less submissive about your work.

“We talk about power and we talk about freedom and I don’t think people want to be free because with freedom comes responsibility,” said Charest. “You might be more responsible, but you are more free.”

That’s why families – one of the first places a person will develop a sense of personal purpose – need to be sociocratic.

“The structure of the family today is broken,” said Charest. There is no longer that developmental aspect for many youth who grow up in broken homes, he said.

A couple Buck knows in South Carolina adopted two children from an orphanage who had attachment disorder. It’s a disorder that causes people to yearn for brief attachments and prevents them from developing meaningful relationships. The popular advice for parents is to be strict with children who have the disorder.

The parents wanted sociocracy, so they had their own circle meeting and allowed the children to help decide the strict rules of the household.

“The children lit up from being involved in the decision making even if the family style day-to-day is autocratic,” said Buck.

From the family onward, sociocrats say there is no limit to how big the theory can go.

“That was my first question – whether a company had to be big or small,” said Endenburg. “I was working with Phillips – it’s one the biggest companies in the world – and there I worked with small groups at the top.”

Soon he was able to spread the sociocratic method to other rungs in the hierarchy, he said.

“It’s kind of a universal principle that you can use in a family or in large business,” said Charest.

But if sociocracy is something found naturally for so many people, why give it a name and develop a liturgy – not to mention an industry – around it?

“I’ve been talking with First Nation people and they do things intuitively like this over time,” said Buck.

“But they don’t have the vocabulary or concepts to explain why it works. In my career, I’ve been in situations where we’re in the flow and the next time not and not knowing why there was a difference.”

This new school of sociocracy, or dynamic governance in some circles, is gaining theoretical substance from cybernetics, the study of the structure of regulatory systems, he said.

“So what Gerard has brought are the insights of cybernetics and it’s only been a science for a few years so our ability to understand is new.”

So far, the sociocracy crew have a small following of businesses, social groups and other institutions.

The Buddhist Broadcasting Foundation in the Netherlands, the United States Green Building Association, a long-term health care centre in Vermont, the Eco-Village of Loudoun County in Virginia, the School of Media, Culture, and Design at Woodbury University, and Yukon College are all implementing the idea.

But up here, the movement is still tiny.

An administrator at the college was interested in the topic and proposed using it, said Karen Barnes, vice-president of education and training.

The college only uses sociocracy in one of its many schools, she said. There’s also some sections of the administrative wing of the college using it.

“It’s a small group of people who are seeing the opportunity to move forward in a different way, she said.

This modern version of sociocracy was invented by Endenburg after a crisis at his company in 1976.

Two executives had to inform workers that a massive layoff was at hand due to a drop in the price of the products they made.

“The people in the business said they would make no consent to that,” said Endenburg. “We make the decision and then the whole group said OK.”

The suits were whisked away, and a cost-saving solution was achieved without resorting to power dynamics between people at the top and people at the bottom.

“That is the difference between the old way and the new way,” said Endenburg. “The old way is to stop everything and say, ‘We make the decisions.’”

“Or you can say for the whole group, ‘We have a problem, how do we solve it?’”

Contact James Munson at jamesm@yukon-news.com.