How decision-making affects our behavior

Why are we divided in democracy? Why do we argue in consensus? What’s the alternative?

Gerard Endenburg, who developed the Sociocratic Circle Method which was the basis for sociocracy and holacracy, is being quoted with the line:

Behavior is determined by the prevailing method of decision-making.

We don’t tend to think of decision making methods as affecting our behavior. And yet, they do, maybe even a lot. I would even go as far as saying that the divisiveness we see in the United States — and in many other countries — has in part been caused by the method of decision making, i.e. majority vote. But other decision making methods are also not free of bias.

I will look at the 4 most common methods of decision making that are common in our culture, exploring what kind of behavior they are biased towards: autocratic decisions, majority vote, consensus and consent.

Autocratic decisions

If one person can decide, just qua authority, we have autocratic decision. It might be the boss, the dictator, the teacher, the parent, or an autocratic founder of a business. For whatever reason, we find ourselves in a system where many have no power and one person has most of the power. Typically, these are situations where we heavily depend on the person in power, and we have no way of changing the power structure.

How will that kind of situation affect our behavior? Since we have no way of changing the power balance, we might feel disengaged and powerless. At the same time, we don’t want to lose our job, our teacher’s goodwill, the founder’s support. So, in a scenario, what we as the person without power do?

Besides disenfranchised workers, we can find ways of sneaky disobedience — working to order, sabotage. We can withold information, taint information, cut out people who might endanger our position, we can try to get into a more favored position with the holder of power. We will either solidarize with the oppressed, or we can be with the powerful, or we can just keep a low profile. There are exactly two sides: you’re with the powerful, or against them.

If we are the person of power, we might be aware of people who disagree. We will withold information, taint information, cut out people who might endanger our position, we can try to get into a more favored position with the next-higher holder of power. Both patterns of behavior are the similar because the game is the same.

Majority vote

Majority vote, historically, is the system that liberated us from autocratic leaders. However, it is striking how similar the situation is to autocratic conditions. The pattern, again, is very similar. You either vote for this candidate, or for another. (Having more than two candidates will easily be a disadvantage for one “side”.) For a yes/no vote, you can either be in favor, or against. There is nothing in between because in the end, you have to check off one or the other. A ballot does not allow for nuances, no comments between the checkboxes. There are two sides, you’re with us or against us.

Therefore, the behavior rewarded by majority vote does not allow for nuances. It’s not about finding good solutions in the middle or anywhere, it’s about winning votes. The rules of the game are about polarizing views. Even if, in reality, people hold more nuanced positions, they have to polarize to brand themselves into a position that is distinguishable from the other candidate. It’s just an implication of how we set the rules of the game.

After the election, there is no need to consider the minority because concessions to the minority put us at risk of losing votes for re-election. What was a majority once needs to remain a majority. The only thing we might attempt is to shut down votes against us for as long as possible so make sure we keep winning. Doing so is evil but also logical.

Note that the basic pattern is true for either side of the political spectrum. It is the system that rewards this kind of behavior — sometimes more, sometimes less, depending on how much political leaders see value in honoring all of their constituents’ needs outside of playing the game. In the grand scheme of things, political parties and the candidates themselves are just players in a system that holds them captive just like anyone else.

The people without too much power, voters, are forced into compromising. A lot of votes are “the lesser of two evils”. It is unlikely that a two-party system (and even a system with more parties) will represent all of our views. We have to let go of some views or get in line to avoid cognitive dissonance.

Common sense and deliberation are not rewarded by majority vote. In my hometown, a huge yes/no question on the ballot engrossed the town for months. The discussion became more and more polarized, more ideological and divisive. I remember a friend of mine saying: “I don’t understand. Friends of mine — people whose opinions I respect — are voting for the other side. I don’t know what to make of this.” To me, it was crystal clear that it was the way the question was asked, do you want this or do you want that?, was what made it impossible to stay in conversation. We all knew it came down to a yes/no vote so we pull up our sleeves and fight for votes.

Preferential vote can be a way out of this as it softens the effects of majority vote. It’s most suitable for candidates, however, and the problem of yes/no questions on the ballot often remains.

Consensus

Consensus is used in some pockets of our culture. Young start-ups, cooperatives, communities, but also non-authoritarian families or relationships often use consensus even if they might not be aware of it. For example, if one partner wants to go to the movies, she might say, hey do you want to go to the movies? The problem with this kind of question is that we often interpret it as questions about our preference. We’re being asked what we want. So in a situation where the partner would have been ok with movies but would rather go out to eat, he might say, no, let’s go out to that new restaurant instead. Hearing a no is not easy for most people, and not getting what we want is also not easy. In a less-than-ideal world, the two partners might end up arguing over the best way to spend the evening.

It’s easy to be attached to our own opinion and preference. So what are our options in consensus if our preferences don’t match?

  • I can try to convince you that my view is right. This can easily turn into ideological arguments similar to majority vote, especially in split decisions.
  • I can push for you to “stand aside”, i.e. for your voice to be ignored for the sake of forward motion for the group.

Both convincing other people and standing aside can be hard on groups or partnerships. People don’t typically cave in without breeding resentment. We might hear more about the other people’s motives — much more than in majority vote — but the energy can easily tip into convincing each other rather than listening to each other. Therefore, consensus works well in homogenous groups valuing community and with excellent communication skills, even in emotional situations.

What we see in our work is that often, consensus-run groups build up a level of chronical sadness. They assume alignment and get disappointed, over and over again. There might also be chronic frustration, especially by the do-ers who get held back by the group. Consensus can mean that a burning soul is willing to propose and carry out a project, just to be blocked by (uninvolved) naysayers. Consensus aims to balance the power between individuals and groups but tends to give blocking individuals slightly more power.

Consent

Consent can be seen as a version of consensus. (For the sake of clarity, some consensus-run organizations interpret consensus the way I interpret consent. In those cases, consensus and consent would be the same. However, we don’t find that to be universally true since consensus is used in different ways.)

Consent turns the question around: instead of asking for what we want, we ask whether there are reasons not to go ahead. Those reasons would take the form of an objection. Consent can be a formal process, or it can just be used informally. For example, I have made good experiences by asking my kids, informally, is there any reason for any of you not to do this? instead of asking is that what you all want?

If there is an objection, we hear and try to understand how our proposal negatively affects the other people in the group, and we try to find ways to address the objection. (See my article on objections.) Sometimes, a group might decide to resolve an objection by shortening the term of the proposal — let’s try it for 3 months and see what happens, instead of aiming for a decision that will be in effect “forever”. That takes some pressure off the right/wrong thinking and can help ground the group in data instead of ideology or fear.

Consent has quite a few positive effects on our behavior:

  • There are no sides anymore, no right/wrong and no “are you with us or against us”. There is just a group trying to find just enough common ground to move one step forward.
  • We don’t have to convince each other as the goal is not to be right, just to find out whether there are objections. That leaves more room for listening as we’re not in the defensive.
  • Consent is inclusive. There is room for different opinions and preferences. We focus on the next-viable step forward that allows everyone to be on board. As such, consent invites both-and thinking, holding different opinions while accepting that there is not absolute right or wrong.
  • Consent rewards self-responsibility. No one can step aside, no one can be ignored, and win-lose power games are not viable.
  • We also elect people into roles by consent which means that being divisive people or those who speak dismissively of individuals or groups of people will not be rewarded. If you insult someone, that person will simply object to your election.

Consent has it’s own limitations, however. One is that consent is not easy to do on a large scale, unless groups are divided into ‘layered’ sets of groups, each operating by consent, as it is practiced in sociocracy.

The other limitation is that consent rewards rational and compelling arguments. This might not be a problem per se but it can create a barrier for people who have a hard time following formats, or who get anxious in structured approaches. It also requires a context where objections are culturally possible — age, gender,privileges related to race and class, and introvertedness might affect how likely someone is to speak up and propose something or object. This can be demanding for people who are not used to being in power. It can also require patience from people who are used to making quick, unilateral decisions.

This leads to the biggest logistical pattern. Consent requires a lot of skill. Objecting requires integrity, integrating objections requires skill. And willingness to experiment requires courage and follow-through. How well consent is filled with life depends on how experienced and resourceful groups and facilitators are.

Conclusion

An extrovert myself with very limited tolerance for being dismissed, slowed down or shut down, I have a clear bias towards consent. But I am aware how much training and practice it will take to make consent as a default decision-making method viable for many.

There is no perfect decision-making method. Each method of decision making comes with its own challenges and benefits. From a position of systems thinking, it is crucial to see how the decision-making method affect behavior. Awareness around patterns in decision-making and group processes in general can help us use those patterns wisely and design the systems that support us in being how we want to be.

Ted is co-founder and operational leader of the non-profit Sociocracy For All that provides resources and immersion training. He is also co-author of the sociocracy handbook Many Voices One Song that provides detailed information and examples for consent decision making.