The ABCDE of culture change

The values behind sociocracy

I am one of the lucky people who learned sociocracy the way a person learns their first language — finding myself immersed in practice. I did not learn it by instruction; I learned it by doing when I joined a self-managed organization that had been running for 15 years and had been doing sociocracy for a while. I did not pay much attention to our governance at first — after all, many things are new when you enter a new organization. I remember, however, the first time I noticed meetings there were different. It was one of those moments when you say something and then notice it is true, when I heard myself say: “I am leaving the meeting more refreshed than I came, more inspired and feeling more connected to everyone in this group.” That was the moment I realized this is much bigger than just a way to make decisions. Feeling more connected and getting things done, that was new to me. And very appealing!

After I had fully emerged in the organization and learned most of the tools of sociocracy — rounds, consent, dealing with objections, selection process, linking — I started looking deeper. The tools looked simple and easy to do, but they made for big effects. I became interested what values were embodied by those tools. You might call it the “hidden curriculum” of sociocracy. Or, since the first letters of the values I found magically align with the first 5 letters of the latin alphabet, let’s call it the ABCDE of sociocracy!

A is for Authenticity

Authenticity is a high priority to me. Authenticity leads to more honesty and therefore to better and more realistic decisions, which then lead to higher effectiveness. Being able to be authentic in our organizations creates a desirable work/life environment which makes it more likely that people are content and contribute willingly. More than that, authenticity gives us the ability to be seen and known as who we are, a universal need we all share.

How does sociocracy support authenticity?

  • In sociocracy, we do rounds. That means everyone will be invited to talk, one by one. You can’t tell us after the meeting that you have not been asked for your opinion because in a round, everyone has their turn. The value every round embodies is: we want to hear what you think. (If you don’t have anything to say, you might pass. Passing is a choice a team member makes, however, and is different from not having been asked.)
  • In consent decision-making, there is no standing aside or abstention. People do not passively “follow orders” in sociocracy. The group needs consent to make policy. You must choose to say “I consent” or else let us know what you’re concerned about. Either way, the decision-making method forces you to show up as a responsible member of the organization. You’ll have to explain yourself. No more excuses. Hiding is just not an option in consent.
  • Sociocracy is extremely transparent, and transparency leads to authenticity. All meeting minutes and financial documents are open. We give more open feedback than most people are used to. There is no hiding, and there are no power games. Someone recently told me that sociocracy and IT are such a good fit because “code does not lie”. In a similar way, a transparent organization cannot lie. That transparency gives rise to authenticity. Once you’re forced to be completely transparent, you might as well be authentic.

B is for Balance

Balance happens when we see value in competing or opposing views and then find creative solutions that make the best of those differences. We recognize that the truth is not black and white, and that more than one thought or fact may be true, even when this seems contradictory. Balance is accepting that each person can have their own experience and “good and “bad” might not apply. In that way, balance is a mindset about how we see the world. It is liberating: we do not have to convince each other of being right. Being right is not the point any more because it is not about you or me. It is about all of us. Overcoming binary distinctions and accepting more than one truth at the same time is often referred to as “both-and thinking”.

Sociocracy supports the both-and mindset in a subtle but powerful way.

  • Balance through “double linking”: whenever a team forms a sub-team, two members of that sub-team who are full members of both the “higher” and the “lower” work group will report to the “parent” team.

Why two people? For a very practical reason: there will always be two people in the room who can report on the same topic. This tiny tweak changes the energy quite a bit. Knowing there is someone else in the room who might have experienced things differently (and might give a different report themselves) makes us aware that there are different perspectives on any topic. Just the presence of the other person in the room will inspire us to ‘monitor’ what we say (‘is this truthful?’, ‘Does it capture the whole story?’). We will be more open to accepting that our own view might be biased or incomplete. People use phrases like “from what I saw…”, or “it will be interesting to hear how NN experienced this, but for me…” We are more willing to accept that we each have just one piece to the puzzle of reality. Having two people report instead of one is a ridiculously simple tool. But it changes how we think and talk about our work, our group and ourselves.

  • Majority vote often leads to polarising views: right/wrong, yes/no, good/bad. If we vote, we have to decide. Even consensus is not free of polarized thinking as it can encourage right/wrong debates. Sometimes there is no way out of right and wrong thinking, as standing aside in consensus can easily carry the message “What you’re doing is wrong but I am not willing to take responsibility.” In consent decision-making, we have to actively consent, or object by giving a reasoned objection. Since everyone in the group has to give consent for a policy decision to be made, we will be much more likely to work towards a win-win or a both-and. Consent will force us to take a whole systems approach because being right does not get us anywhere. How can we, beyond right and wrong, find a solution that everyone can work with?

C is for Connection

Connection, in my view, is the most underrated need in our western society. Connection is what humans are wired for, a value of its own. Connection is the basis for care, for collaboration and it is the social glue for everything we do.

Sociocracy supports connection in many ways. Where binary distinctions like right/wrong have a separating nature — dividing up the world into those who are on one side and those who are on the other — balancing out views and needs between people or groups will serve to connect us. We want to feel connected, cared for and seen for who we are. Any governance method that supports connection between humans will support us to be human and humane in our collaboration.

While operational decisions can be made by individuals within the frame of policy, the basis for any policy decision in sociocracy is the circle. The circle is the group where trust and appreciation can grow over time as we work together and wrestle with difficult decisions. Connection requires an emotionally safe, consistent group of people. That how listening, learning and deliberation can happen.

  • Every sociocratic meeting starts with an opening round where everyone can share what is present for them in the moment. What they say can be related to the meeting or to something outside of the meeting. Whatever people choose to say, we get to know each other more as people share. One team member might share that their child was up with a fever all night, or that their mother was just diagnosed with dementia. We all are part of real life, and the more we know about each other, the more we will be able to have compassion. Sometimes, I sit with that after a check-in round: ‘wow, we’re all human. Each with our own story and context. We’re all doing the best we can.’ The beauty of being human connects us. I love that human connection becomes the starting point for every meeting.
  • As mentioned, in sociocracy, we almost exclusively talk in rounds. That means that everyone gets to speak. It also means that everyone will get a chance to listen. When we listen more (because we’re not preparing our counter-statement already), we get a better sense of what a teammate’s experience is. We can slow down and see the world through their eyes. The more we know each other, the better we can connect. The more connected we are, the more enjoyable it will be to help each other, work together, and to make things happen together.

D is for Discovery

Is discovery a value in itself? Or is it only desirable because it gets us somewhere? I have come to understand that what I call discovery, like balance, is more of a mindset: it is the insight that we’re never done. Nothing is ever perfect. This realization can be uncomfortable because we enjoy the ease of thinking that everything is being taken care of. But once one is comfortable with not being perfect, the discovery zone is an exciting place to be! As an organization and as individuals, the open, “growth mindset” is how we learn and improve.

How can we get into and stay in discovery mode? What does sociocracy have to offer here?

  • Sociocracy requires intentionality around reviewing decisions. In sociocracy, every decision has a term end. That means we get to revisit every decision on a regular (and chosen) time frame. That’s good in itself but it also changes our mindset. We get into a habit of improving things over time. 
    Putting a term end on a decision also means that we don’t have to make it too perfect to begin with. Let’s make it good enough and take it from there. The humbling idea of “ok, let’s see what happens” is a useful trait in a world as complex as ours. We cannot predict the future. Things are too complex to make predictions, since too many systems are connected. If I make a change in one spot, a problem might arise in a different spot where I did not expect it. So instead of making predictions, let’s make small scale experiments and pay attention to the results we get.
  • In sociocracy, we invite feedback on a regular basis. Reaction rounds, open elections with feedback, performance review, policy reviews, meeting evaluations… we’re constantly striving to hear what we can do better. The more information we have, the better our decisions will be. If we have a safe space to talk, more information also leads to more deliberation. Sociocracy supports you in changing your mind fromt time to time. The election process, for instance, even has a round called “change round” — that’s where you get to change your mind after hearing your team members’ opinion! In a world where we’re constantly trying to be right, being asked to say something and to change your mind (or not) just minutes later is a refreshing concept. The whole system is set up in a way that we probably won’t get things right the first time but that we continue to listen to each other and to the data and we’ll make it better next time.

There is lots of feedback and data we can take in once we’re open to it. We can always learn about our work, our communication skills and relationships and about ourselves. The pleasure of always being on a journey, that’s what discovery is about.

On the surface level, what we see is a technical requirement for term ends and for feedback mechanisms. What happens on a deeper level is that we can make it a habit to improve and to reflect. Sociocracy is not about the term ends or about what kind of round comes when. Those are just strategies. What we’re after is the effect. By the way, if you have a different way of reaching the same results, go for it and make sure we hear about it. This governance system is designed to improve itself over time!

E is for Equivalence

This is a big one. Maybe the biggest. The essence of sociocracy is: no one ignored. Why shouldn’t anyone be ignored? Because every authentic voice is equally valuable. And because every person has a piece to the puzzle that we’re all trying to put together.

How do we embody, practice and support equivalence in self-governance? Many tools and processes have been named already: transparency, for instance, levels the playing field. If there is no holding back information (intentionally or unintentionally), then we all have access to the same information and inequality around access to information is evened out. If decisions are made by consent, then no one can be outnumbered or overpowered. Like non-violence, equivalence in governance is revolutionary because it turns upside down what we have been — and mostly are — doing. Shared decision-making power also goes hand in hand with shared ownership. If legal ownership is in the hand of only a few, there cannot be shared power with non-owners. Shared decision-making in the absence of shared or distributed ownership will just be cosmetic.

Equivalence requires trust that you support me and I support you. That I will not overpower you. That I will consider your needs and value your voice also when we disagree. Staying true to your own values is hard when we get caught up in feelings, and that’s why I prefer having systems in place that support me in living up to my standards. How does sociocracy contribute to that?

  • Equivalence through consent decision-making. Everyone’s needs are on the table. For every decision, I know that pushing my own agenda will not get me anywhere. If I know that the decision will require everyone’s consent in the end, I will either start exploring solutions knowing all voices have to be taken into account — or I will notice half-way into the process that I started by wanting something without listening first. The definition of consent (‘no objection’) might sound technical but the effect is deeply human, connecting, caring.
  • Equivalence is embodied through the combination of linking and consent, from the bottom up to the board level. Any worker can be elected as the bottom-up link and become member of a “higher” circle with full consent rights, and onward from there up to the board level. That means that we will have representation of workers on all levels of the organization. Since the decision-making method is consent on all levels, the workers’ voice cannot be overpowered, even on board level. Any power-over strategy is disarmed now. Since sociocracy is governance by those who associate or work together, the distinction between workers and managers does not even apply any more.

Those who are connected to the impact of their decisions, locally and globally, will make better decisions. A sociocratic board (sometimes called top circle) brings together the voices of all the stakeholders and outside people. A top circle will include delegates from the workers, the owners, stakeholders, people from related organizations (locally or globally) and/or from the wider community. That way, you hear everyone’s voice, and your organization can influence the wider community. The combination of consent and linking is a way to formalize and represent the web of interdependence that we are a part of. No one can be ignored: no one inside the organization, no stakeholder and not the community we are a part of .

ABCDE makes culture change

Given that we all have so little experience with shared power, all those tools help us practice. Sociocracy cannot be implemented in an organization where these values are not agreed upon in some way; I have seen organizations struggle with sociocracy when people still wanted to be right, and even rounds did not help them listen. A governance system cannot turn mindsets around. But it can slowly, bit by bit, interaction by interaction, change behavior, even if people are not aware of the “hidden curriculum”. It can give people the tools to live up to their standards. It can create an environment where trust can grow. It can remind people to remain intentional about what we do. A governance system that is as well thought through as sociocracy can change people’s habits, group by group, and that’s how culture change is made.