Monday, November 4, 2013

Voting and Cooperative Culture

I'm in Ann Arbor right now, where I participated over the weekend in the annual conference of the North American Students of Cooperation. Sunday morning I did a 90-minute workshop on Consensus, during which I was asked to contrast how voting differs from consensus in terms of its effect on the group's culture. What a good question!

While student co-ops are invariably dedicated to making decisions democratically—where everyone has a voice in what happens—there's a large difference between doing that through voting, which is essentially an adaptation of our mainstream competitive culture to ensure a fair fight, and doing so through consensus, which represents a cultural sea change. 

As it happens, many student co-ops use voting, which is understandable when you take into account that for most of the members it's their first experience with cooperative living and voting is the decision-making process they know best. Thus, it's appealing to take what you know and try to make it as open and as even-handed as possible. 

Further, it's no small matter to understand consensus and get good results with it. It requires unlearning competitive conditioning that runs deep, and it can be especially challenging to access your new-found cooperative intentions when the stakes are high and you have a strong view about what should happen.

All of that said, it's important to grok that in sociological terms, competitive culture is the opposite of cooperative culture, and if you're seeking to move from one to the other, you need to think through how your decision-making process reinforces or retards that transition.

Does voting have to be adversarial and competitive? No, but it often is. Witness the divisive dynamics of voting in the US government, which have taken a marked turn for the worse (by which I mean less civil and less collaborative) than a generation ago. Today, it's the norm to hear vicious public statements from elected officials about those who hold differing views, negative ad campaigns are depressingly common, and suggestions for bipartisan actions are seen as a sign of weakness. Yuck.

Even though cooperatives are committed (presumably) to cooperation, voting does not tend to reinforce that commitment. Let's break it down, starting with the assumption of good intent on everyone's part (I know that sometimes there's hanky panky, stuffed ballot boxes, backroom deals, and outright misleading statements, but let's set all of that nonsense aside).

The interesting case is when the vote is not unanimous. Voting advocates like this because it allows the group to move forward when there is substantial support for a particular course of action, yet everyone is not aligned. In consensus you would not have an agreement; with voting you do. While this undoubtedly saves meeting time (you reach the finish line sooner), it comes at the cost of an outvoted minority that may feel disenfranchised, run over, or otherwise unhappy, which can manifest in sidewalk grumbling, halfhearted implementation, and even sabotage. 

Mind you, I'm not saying that losing minorities are always disgruntled (in fact, I reckon they're "gruntled" more often than you hear that label applied), yet it isn't rare, and it can be the very dickens for losers to distinguish between their views being: a) blithely disregarded (because they don't have enough votes); or b) disagreed with though carefully considered.

With voting you run the risk of tyranny of the majority, where a determined and cohesive bloc can run roughshod over the outnumbered; with consensus you are susceptible to tyranny of the minority, where an obstreperous few can hold up the many.

With voting it's all about aggregating enough votes to prevail. With consensus you need to slow down enough to get all legitimate concerns on the table and addressed. For consensus to work you need to create an environment where openness and even disagreement are encouraged (so that you can explore how people got to different points of view, which can illuminate nuance—ultimately strengthening the final proposal about how best to respond). With voting you sometimes make a strategic choice to not speak if it looks like you have no chance of prevailing and want to conserve your social capital for a more propitious time. In voting, there is a tendency to stop listening closely once you've secured enough votes to pass your proposal. In consensus you have to work the whole room.

While I've tried to outline above some of the unwanted cultural consequences of voting, I have sympathy for student co-ops that are hesitant about using consensus. In addition to the non-trivial commitment to culture change, you have to cope with a constantly changing membership (almost all of whom will need training in consensus if you expect them to use it well), and the need to be careful about membership selection both so that prospectives know what they are signing up for and can be screened for alignment with the group's common values and agreements extant. All of this is work and it's understandably tempting to be less careful about who you let in (so long as their rent checks are good) with the strategy that you can manage difficult members by outvoting them.

In summary, consensus, if done well, will tend to engender more cooperative culture than voting, but you need to be diligent about process training, clear about common values, and careful with membership selection in order to harvest that result. Some groups would rather just vote.

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