Monday, January 20, 2014

Hierarchy in Cooperative Groups

Happy Inauguration Day!

As we're not installing a President today—we did that last year and it only happens quadrennially (a word I rarely get to use in mixed company)—I'm using the occasion to write about power and hierarchy in a country dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Over the course of the last two months I've run into considerable buzz among advocates for cooperative culture around the concept that maybe hierarchy isn't all bad. The interesting thing to me is that this has been shared with an aroma of heresy—and I've been scratching my head to understand why, or even why this is considered an insight.

Mostly, cooperative culture is build on the bedrock concepts of equality and fairness. Having lived in intentional community for 40 years, those are certainly core values to me and to network groups I've been part of, including the Federation of Egalitarian Communities and the Fellowship for Intentional Community. But what does "equality" mean?

I believe it's the idea that all people have fundamental rights:
o  Access to the essentials of life: food, clothing, shelter, health, education
o  Opportunity to have input on decisions affecting their life
o  An explanation when things don't go their way
o  Access to meaningful work
o  Support in hard times

I further believe it's the idea that all people have basic responsibilities:
o  To contribute to the well-being of others (parallel to what has been extended to them)
o  To follow through on commitments and to abide by agreements
o  To do one's fair share (which includes a proportionate share of the grunt work)
o  To treat others with basic respect
o  To listen to what others have to say on matters of joint interest, and to consider viewpoints differ than one's own

Having said all that, I don't think it means everyone is equally talented or has equal power. In fact, I think that's absurd. My commitment to everyone having a chance to offer their views does not guarantee that everyone's view will be given equal weight—that depends on the perceived merits of what they've said, which is actually a fairly complex calculus (more on that below).

Equal Whether You Like it or Not
Some groups committed to equality adopt the practice of rotating everyone through positions of authority (thus, in a group of 10, every tenth meeting it would be your turn to facilitate). The good side of this is that:

a) It gives everyone a taste of the role. Sometimes taking a turn as facilitator can have an amazingly salutary effect on how people participate in meetings. Having walked in the facilitator's moccasins, members tend to be more respectful and less rebellious when others are in that role.

b) Sometimes people need to be nudged into taking the first step. If the initial experience goes well enough that may be all they need to keep at it and develop a new skill, benefiting everyone.

c) It prevents people getting locked into roles that they'd rather not be assigned permanently. Sometimes people become victims of their talent or their success, and the group gets lazy about developing replacements or substitutes.

d) It's demonstrably fair, and avoids any hard feelings about why someone never gets picked.

Turning the coin over, the bad side is:

e) Talent is almost always unevenly distributed. If everyone takes a turn, that means the group is guaranteed to suffer through bouts of less competent people in the role. That can get expensive.

f) The flip side of b) is that a person can be traumatized by being pushed into a role they don't want and having it go poorly (which result is all the more likely when someone doesn't want the role in the first place). In addition to poor results for the group, it scars the person, and what's the good in that?

g) It undercuts the value of having the group get explicit about what it wants from that role, since assignments won't be based on ability to meet the criteria.

—Laird's Take
I think the best melding of these poles is to have the group commit resources to helping people learn the skills needed to do any job that the group depends on, and then giving them opportunities to practice what they're learning appropriate to their development. Thus, the group commits to broadening the leadership base, yet doesn't insist on people taking turns in roles they want no part of, and people are not assigned roles they are not (yet) equipped to handle well.

All Are Equal, but Some Are More Equal than Others
This is a paraphrase from Animal Farm, George Orwell's 1945 satirical allegory about the concentration of power under Stalin in the name of the proletariat, ultimately recapitulating the very abuses of power that the communists were inspired to overthrow the Russian czars to address.

Understanding the distribution of power in cooperative groups is a tricky and volatile issue. I think of power as the ability to get others to do something, or to agree to something. In essence, I'm defining power as influence. In addition, there is the concept of authority, by which I mean a group-granted license to act on the group's behalf.

In democratic groups the plenary (meeting of the whole) is the ultimate repository of authority. Sometimes (typically not as often as they should) authority is delegated to committees or managers. However, irrespective of authority, let's look more deeply at power in the context of the plenary. It's my observation that the ability to influence is never evenly distributed among the membership.

This has to do with many things:

o  Experience germane to the issue
If you're discussing how to address a burst water pipe in the common house, the views of the member who's a retired plumber are going to carry more weight.

o  Track record
People whose advice has proven sound in the past will be listened to more closely.

o  Persuasiveness 
Those more comfortable speaking in group and more cogent in their comments are likely to be more successful in garnering support for their views.

o  Sagacity
People who are perceived to listen well to what others have said and can consistently place the group's interests ahead of their own tend to have more sway.

o  Privilege
We have all been conditioned to defer to some categories of people over others, independent of the above factors. Even where there is explicit agreement to be conscious of privilege, and to not be influenced by it, it takes constant vigilance to be aware of its presence.

(To illuminate how confusing this can be, I have a tremendous amount of privilege in the context of the mainstream culture: white, older, male, straight, Protestant upbringing, college educated, well-off middle class parents. That said, cooperative groups trying to create an alternative to privileged-based culture are aware of this and are thus on guard in how they hear me, wanting to be diligent about not accidentally agreeing with me out of conditioning—rather than on the basis of my thinking and experience. It can get pretty messy discerning between the two.)

—Laird's Take
While that's not everything, it's enough to establish the complexity of the dynamic. In general, cooperative groups want to promote power (influence) being used for the good of the whole (power with) instead of its being used for the benefit of some at the expense of others (power over). In managing this, it's imperative that groups are able to talk openly and authentically about the perception that power has been used inappropriately. If, however, they are operating under the misguided notion that power is flatly distributed (because that's the group's intention) then it becomes impossible to have this conversation, and members will be oriented to seeing the boogie man everywhere—because exercising power will be seen as prima facie evidence of an out-of-control ego. It'll be a witch hunt. (Among other things, if members are laboring under the assumption that they should get their way as often as everyone else—independent of the quality of their views—it leads to the automatic analysis that consistent failure to prevail translates into their not having been heard, and that they're being systematically discriminated against. Ugh.)

While it's good to protect the equality of opportunity for everyone to add their piece to the consideration, it's ridiculous to pretend that everyone's influence will be equal.

Delegate or Die
More subtly, there is a relatively common notion among groups using consensus that the plenary should, more or less, decide everything. While that's not such a big deal in a group of four to six, it's totally out of hand in groups of 20 or more. It's my sense that consensus groups often hamstring themselves by insisting that committees and managers conduct research and develop proposals that must come to the plenary for approval, one at a time. This undercuts enthusiasm for committee work (because everything is subject to revision by the plenary) and creates a terrific bottleneck in plenary (which must sprinkle holy water on too many things).

I think one of the reasons that this happens is because those with less power (influence) are fearful that delegated authority will make it harder to have their say, because it will take much more effort on their part to attend the dispersed meetings at which decisions will be made. This translates into a further erosion of their power and they want to hold onto what they have—often because their draw to be in the group in the first place was motivated, at least in part, by the desire to have more say in a world that is profoundly disempowering.

—Laird's Take
Delegation should be based on an assessment of skill, motivation, and availability relative to what is wanted from the position. (Note that this implies clear and complete job descriptions.)

That said, there is profound poignancy about how to balance: a) the need for efficacy, and for putting the right people in the right positions; with b) the deep desire for a more just and fair world that promotes decency and addresses the myriad ways that power is misused in the world. After a lifetime of experiencing hierarchy associated with abuse, it's not at all easy to sort the baby (healthy use of power) from the bath water (of structure being used to justify all manner of mischief in the name of efficiency).

• • •
In conclusion, I want to return to where I started: the tenderness of people committed to cooperative culture who are now in anguish about seeing the appropriateness for some degree of hierarchy.

Because I've never thought that a commitment to consensus and cooperative culture meant that delegated authority was a bad idea, I've not been finding any new nuggets when I sieve through the dialog. Nevertheless, I view this dialog as a sign of a maturing movement, where proponents are breaking out of a chrysalis that had them locked into one-size-fits-all equality. The prize here is a better quality for life for all, not reducing everyone to the least common denominator.

I think of this not so much as painful growth, as growing pains.


Abe Karl-Gruswitz said...

Expertise and influence are not the same thing as hierarchy. Delegation is not the same thing as hierarchy, as long as the community has oversight.

Expertise in a participatory community can stand by itself. The power is in the knowledge itself and not the person. As a contrast, if a teacher holds hierarchical authority over a student, the power is in "because I said so!"

Hierarchy is the structure that results from the belief that some people are superior to others. It is also the structure that promotes that belief.

Laird, you have written recently on your blog about the delicate balance of delegation. If delegation gets to far from center, transparency and decisions that are representive of the group take a loss.

I end up having conversations with people new to the idea of an egalitarian community. They get caught up in the root word "equal" and say, "Well we can not be all equal! Some of are better at this than that, and we all have different abilities." I respond with saying that egalitarianism is about giving people more equal access to resources and decision-making. If a member comes into our community and is taller than the rest of the group, we're not going to lop off his feet to shorten him. Similarly, democracy or participatory decision-making does not mean all decisions are made by everyone about everything all the time. It does mean that for a healthy democracy, hierarchy is to be avoided.

Abe Karl-Gruswitz said...

Here is another point of concern for certain types of delegation:

"We are in an age that assumes the narrowing trends of specialization to be logical, natural, and desirable. Consequently, society expects all earnestly responsible communication to be crisply brief. Advancing science has now discovered that all the known cases of biological extinction have been caused by overspecialization, whose concentration of only selected genes sacrifices general adaptability. Thus the specialist’s brief for pinpointing brevity is dubious. In the meantime, humanity has been deprived of comprehensive understanding. Specialization has bred feelings of isolation, futility, and confusion in individuals. It has also resulted in the individual’s leaving responsibility for thinking and social action to others. Specialization breeds biases that ultimately aggregate as international and ideological discord, which in turn leads to war." - Buckminster Fuller(Synergistics 1975)

Abe Karl-Gruswitz said...

Hierarchy can be efficient in the decision making, and slow in the implementation. Underlings tend to drag their feet more. Having a sense of common ownership brings more investment to workers.

In carrying out the values and thoughts of a group, hierarchy is very inefficient. It would be better to take from permaculture and plan more ahead of time, so the implementation is quicker and so the system can sustain itself longer.