3 Tools from Sociocracy to Use Right Away, Plus Magic Phrases: Part 3 – Consent Decision Making

By Ted Rau and originally published as a single article at sociocracyforall

This is the third part of a 3 part article – looking at the third tool. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here.

Many organizations are intrigued by the idea of self-management using circle-based frameworks and other decision making tools from sociocracy. However, it can be intimidating to implement those methods. You’ll have to do research, train everyone, implement — months or even years of transition time. And regular work needs to get done as well! I always compare changes in governance to beating heart surgery. Tricky — at the very least.

Is there an easier way? Most of all, is there a safer way? Something that’s not all-or-nothing but more step-by-step? Luckily, sociocracy lends itself to that. Start with something and then add more features if and when you want. You do not have to ask anyone for permission. You have full power over your self-management method.

The 3 tools presented here don’t need long explanations or trainings. You can do a small-scale experiment and evaluate how it went. When you’re ready to hear more beyond those three tools, I am happy to point you to the next step.

I picked these three tools because, in our experience, these are the tools that our training participants bring into their companies and that stick the most. Try them and see what you think.

Oftentimes, organizations do not have a defined agreed-upon decision-making method, especially start-ups or young organizations in general. Groups often switch back and forth between consensus (=we all agree), autocratic elements (=the most dominant decide and the others don’t speak up) and majority vote (=the needs of the minority can be disregarded) without any clarity or intentionality on how they make their decisions. Again, absence of intentionality often leads to reinforcing underlying power structures. The nay-sayer in the consensus-run group has too much power (tyranny of the minority!), and voting lets the power tip towards the 51% (tyranny of the majority!), and the more dominant people will get their way.

In those systems, everyone loses. A consensus-run group will wear out as people will lose their drive to bring another idea forward just so it can be shot down. Majority vote can very easily miss out on great ideas from the minority and disengage up 49% of the people, and even more opportunity is missed in systems of hidden dominance and blunt autocracy.

How can we make a decision so that everyone can have a say without the disadvantages of consensus decision-making? Consent decision-making is the solution from sociocracy.

Graphic for definition of consent in sociocracy decision making. Consent includes preference and range of tolerance. Outside of consent lies an objection.

Consent is defined by “no objection”. Not having an objection is slightly different from agreeing. We refer to that extra space as the range of tolerance. We don’t have to find the overlap of our preferences in order to make a decision. Instead, we seek the overlap of our ranges of tolerances which gives us much more to work with. (Side note: some use consensus like consent. In that case there is no issue as long as that is done by everyone consistently.)

  • Everyone’s needs will be considered. That does not mean everyone gets what they want but every objection can be heard and addressed.
  • More buy-in. No one leaves the room feeling disengaged.
  • No toxic behavior after. Consent is an active process. There is no “standing aside”, and no one can abstain. Everyone with consent rights has to consent — which also means everyone in the room is equally responsible. There is no “well I told you” after things go wrong!
  • It saves time. We do not have to argue about everything until we agree or one gives up. If there is no objection, we consent, and if there is an objection, we deal. We always push for consent fairly early. Then we hear what the objections are which tells us where to best put our discussion time.
  • Objections give us more information. Someone who votes “no” might never tell us what their concern was. In consent, we harvest more information which can only be better for everyone.

I have not been talking about objections a lot. (Objections are like tensions in Holacracy.) People are sometimes concerned and don’t trust that there is a way to address an objection. Too many of us have experienced what it is like when your concern is brushed off by the group. But this does not have to be the case. If a group gets used to consent decision-making, they build trust that their concerns will be considered. The healing effect of that can be felt, and the group relaxes. That leads to an upward spiral. As we get more relaxed, there is more space for listening and finding solutions, building even more trust.

Graphic displaying how the shared range of tolerance between a group of people is much larger than their shared range of preference, to emphasize the benefits of consent decision making in sociocracy decision making over consensus.

The definition for an objection is “carrying out this policy will interfere with the aim of the organization or team”. This simply means that you object when you see that a proposal or guideline will keep you from doing your work effectively.

objection - sociocracy decision making - Sociocracy For All

Is a concern different from an objection? In this brief article, I have been using both interchangeably. Why? For me, there are exactly two outcomes from any concern/objection/tension or whatever. 1. You address it. 2. You don’t. I do not see any reason to make it more complicated. I have a hard time with any framework that involves judgment on whether an objection is “valid”. Because that shifts power to the people who decide which objections are valid (or to the people who implement the rules that guide what is valid). I don’t want to be equals under a set of rules made by someone else. I want to make the rules together. In sociocracy, any (governance and other) policy and any objection belongs to the group, and the group decides what to do with it.

It might be a good idea to intentionally implement consent as your decision-making method. It might work best if you just formulate it in plain language: “From now on, a decision is made when no one in the group objects.”

Consent and dealing with objections is an art and a science but that’s for another time. For now, I want to give you two magic phrases that prime your team for consent as a decision-making method.

bump - sociocracy decision making - Sociocracy For All
  • I don’t think we can all get what we’d prefer here because there are just too many different needs on the table. How about we shoot for a decision that everyone in the room can work with instead of trying to make it perfect? Then we could try it out and see how it plays out.
  • I want to be sure that no one in the room walks away with a decision that is going to keep them from doing good work. Let’s talk until we have a decision that is good enough for everyone.

What to expect after implementing decision making tools from sociocracy

You might run into issues using rounds, small group mandate or consent. We have seen organizations implement sociocracy decision making tools, incrementally or half-heartedly and run into issues. Self-management isn’t easy or without bumps in the road. When things are not going as smoothly as you were hoping, that’s just feedback. No reason to panic or to throw in the towel. (Peek into this article to read about the most typical struggles and how to fix them.)

Sociocracy gives you the option of starting small. But the more features you “unlock”, the more benefit you will get. As you might have noticed, the three tools named here support each other:

  • Consent is easier to do with small group mandate and rounds.
  • Rounds are more doable in small groups and more focused and targeted with consent decision-making.
  • Small group mandate can be boosted by consent decision-making and rounds.

And you don’t even have to stop there. Add sociocratic electionsroles, term ends and evaluation, feedback loops, the art of dealing with objectionsrole improvementmeeting formatcollaborative ways of generating proposals, and most of all honest and constructive feedback, and your self-governance will be smooth, gentle and quiet.

Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here.

Republished with permission.

Featured Image added by Enlivening Edge Magazine. Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay