Monday, August 18, 2014

Critique of Sociocracy

Following is a summary of my reservations about sociocracy (aka Dynamic Governance) as a governance system for cooperative groups—especially ones depending on voluntary participation. I'm just not that excited about it.

In this monograph I am paying particular attention to how this contrasts with consensus, which is the main horse that sociocracy is stalking. (Do not assign any meaning to the order in which I’ve presented my points.)

1. Does not address emotional input

One of my main concerns with this system is that there is no mention in its articulation of how to understand or work with emotions. As I see this as an essential component of group dynamics, this is a serious flaw.

I even had one advocate tell me once that when you use sociocracy no one gets upset. Puleeease! If you have a system that only works well when everyone is thinking and behaving rationally then you have an unstable equilibrium. This is not a system; it's a fragment.

2. Double linking of committees (or “circles” in sociocratic parlance)

When a group is large enough (probably anything past 12, and maybe smaller) it makes sense to create a committee structure to delegate tasks. While people can serve on more than one committee, it’s naturally important to have a clear understanding of how each committee relates to each other, and to the whole.

While the above paragraph is Organizational Structure 101, in sociocracy there is the added wrinkle that committees regularly working together (as when one oversees the other, or when two committees are expected to collaborate regularly) are asked to place a representative in each related committee. These reps (one each way) serve as liaisons and communications links from one committee to the other, helping to ensure that messages and their nuances are more accurately transmitted.

While this sounds good in theory (and may work well in practice in the corporate environment for which sociocracy was originally created), it runs smack into a chronic problem in cooperative groups that are highly dependent on committee slots filled by volunteers: too many slots and too few people to fill them well. In 27 years as a process consultant for cooperative groups, I don’t recall ever having encountered a group that reported being able to easily fill all of its committee and manager positions. Sociocracy blithely asks that groups add an additional layer of responsibility to what they already have in place, which means even more committee assignments. It’s unworkable.

3. Selection process calls for surfacing candidate concerns on the spot

One of the trickier aspects of cooperative group dynamics is handling critical feedback well. That includes several non-trivial challenges:

o  Creating a culture in which critical feedback relative to group function is valued and encouraged.

o  Helping people find the courage to say hard things.

o  Helping people with critical things to say to sort out (and process separately) any upset or reactivity they are carrying in association with the critique, so that they don’t unload on the person when offering feedback.

o  Helping recipients respond to critical feedback openly, not defensively.

Even though the goal is worthy, none of these is necessarily easy to do, and my experience in the field has taught me the value of giving people choices in how best to give and receive critical feedback. (For some it's absolutely excruciating to be criticized in public.)

In the case of sociocracy, the model calls for selecting people to fill positions (such as a managership or committee seat) in an up-tempo process where you call for nominations, discuss candidate suitability, and make a decision all in one go.

While that is admirable for its efficiency, you cannot convince me that this promotes full disclosure of reservations, complete digestion of critical statements (without dyspepsia), or thoughtful consideration of flawed candidates. While I can imagine this approach working fine in a group comprised wholly of mature, self-aware individuals, how many groups like that do you know? Me neither.

4. The concepts of “paramount” concerns, and “consent” versus “consensus”

Sociocracy makes a large deal out of participants only expressing: a) preferences about what should be taken into account; or b) reservations about proposals, if they constitute “paramount” concerns. Unfortunately, the term “paramount” is undefined and results in considerable confusion about what the standard represents. I believe that this maps well onto the basic consensus principle that you should be voicing what you believe is best for the group—as distinct from personal preferences—and that you should only speak if your concern is non-trivial. In short, I have not found this principle to be illuminating, or distinctive from consensus thinking.

The second piece of confusing rhetoric is insisting that sociocracy is about seeking “consent” rather than “consensus.” I believe that the aim in this attempt it to encourage an atmosphere of “is it good enough,” in contrast with “is it perfect”?

To be sure, there is anxiety among consensus users about being held hostage by an obstinate minority that may be unwilling to let a proposal go forward because they see how bad results are possible and are afraid of being stuck with them. This leads to paralysis. While it shouldn’t be hard to change an ineffective agreement (once experience with its application has exposed its weaknesses), I believe a better way to manage tyranny-of-the-minority dynamics is by educating participants (read consensus training) and developing a high-trust culture characterized by good listening, and proposal development that takes into account all views.

In the end, sociocracy’s “consent” is not significantly different from “consensus”; it’s just playing with words.

5. Rounds are not always the best format

Sociocracy is in love with Rounds, where everyone has a protected chance to offer comments on the matter at hand. While it’s laudable to protect everyone’s opportunity for input, this is only one of many choices available for how to solicit input on topics (others include open discussion, sharing circles, individual writing, small group breakout, silence, guided visualization, fishbowls). Each has their purpose, as well as their advantages and liabilities.

While Rounds are great at protecting talking time for those more timid about pushing their way into an open discussion, and serve as an affective muzzle for those inclined to take up more than their share of air time, they tend to be slow and repetitive. If you speed them up (Lightning Rounds) this addresses time use, yet at the expense of bamboozling those who find speaking in group daunting, or are naturally slower to know their mind and be ready to speak.

If you only have a hammer (one tool), pretty soon everything starts looking like a nail and reality is not nearly so one-dimensional and who wants to lie down on a bed of nails anyway? You need more tools in the box.

6. Starting with proposals

In sociocracy (and in many groups using consensus as well) there is the expectation that when an item comes to plenary it will be in the form of a proposal ("here is the issue and here is a suggested solution"). In fact, you won’t get time on the plenary agenda unless you have a proposal.

While this forces the shepherd to be ready for plenary (a good thing) and can sometimes save time (when the proposal is excellent and does a good job of anticipating what needs to be taken into account and balancing the factors well), it can also be a train wreck. Far better, in my experience, is that if something is worthy of plenary attention, that you not begin proposal development until after the plenary has agreed on what factors the proposal needs to address, and with what relative weight. If the manager or committee guesses at these (in order to get time on the agenda) they may invest considerably in a solution that just gets trashed.

Not only is this demoralizing for the proposal generators, but it skews the conversation about how to respond to the issue (“What needs to be taken into account in addressing this issue?” is a different question than “Does this proposal adequately address this concern?”) In essence, leading with the proposal is placing the cart (the solution) before the horse (what the solution needs to balance).

Cooperative groups make this mistake a lot, and sociocracy follows them right down the same rabbit hole.


Sharon Villines said...

There are many good points here that sociocracy needs to address. But there are also many misconceptions and errors. It's very hard to address them all in this format so I will address them at and then post the address here. One problem is that most of our experiences come from experience with one trainer and not from the history and theory of sociocracy. While the sociocratic circle-organization method is a governance system and not a technique, a good analogy is with NVC. NVC has seen many misapplications and mis understandings, but I don't think anyone with a deep familiarity with its history, theory, and practice, would deny its effectiveness. My site is and the email discussion list is

Anonymous said...

Dear Laird.
I have enjoyed many of your blogposts about community and meetings, since you obviously have so much experience and deep knowledge in that field.
I am sure that based on this long background you can also write a valuable and interesting blogpost about something as new for you as sociocracy, very soon after you have understood the system.
However to get there I think some further research is required.

Sociocracy is not "stalking" consensus. Sociocracy is developed in a company context where consensus hardly is present.
Sociocracy works in that context because consent is different from (and more efficient) than consensus. This more than a play of words.

"Stalking" and similar vocabulary in your blogpost is play of words. In my experience your tone towards Sociocracy weakens the credibility of your blog.

Nathaniel Whitestone said...

Dear Laird,

First, I want to say that I feel happy when I see your name on the page -- it's great to think of you again, and I deeply respect your expertise as a facilitator.

Second, I have some quibbles with what you claim. I'd like to improve your understanding of Sociocracy. I'll respond to each of your numbered points in turn.

Unfortunately, I do not have space to do so in this comments section! So I have written up my response on my blog. Please feel free to get back to me in the comments section there!

Sharon Villines said...

Laird, I really like this post. It gives me lots of insight into how sociocracy is being presented and perceived.

My response to the first line about sociocracy "stalking consent." It took hours to write so other responses will not be done today:

Sharon Villines

Jerry Koch-Gonzalez said...


I am saddened that you continue your criticism of sociocracy without clear enough understanding of it. Others have responded with specifics, so I won't here.

The essence of what I hear you say in this blog is that when the forms of decision making and organization you favor are well implemented, they are more effective than sociocracy poorly done. I can agree with that. And perhaps you can agree that when sociocracy is well implemented, it is more effective than a poor execution of the forms of decision making and organization you favor.

We've all seen some pretty awful decision making processes. in my mind, your work and the work of those of us who promote sociocracy both contribute to the well-being of the communities we care so much about.

Jerry Koch-Gonzalez

Barbara Strauch said...

Dear Laird!
I am Barbara Strauch, 58 years old, leader of the Soziokratie Zentrum Österreich which started 2013 in Vienna for propagating the sociocratic method in austria. I am coaching communities, Cohousings and transition movements for the last 5 years. In the last 15 years I learnd so many wonderful methods that helps common projects to selforganize and build their communities. Sociocracy is one of them.

My long answer to your blog „Critique of Sociocracy“ comes because of a good austrian friend, Martin Kirchner, sendet the whole text to some people. Martin and I are two of a handful founders of the „Austrotopia - Network for Common Forms of Housing“ in Austria that startet in 2002.

Martin is very interested on critique of sociocracy, although in 2012 the sociocratic method (implementated by myself) had preserved his community „Pomali“ before the end. I am sure added to this there have been other facts which are responsible for the preservation of POMALI, but if this organisation method would not have been implemented at 2012, they would not have been able to steer the ship into the haven. Now they live there since chrismas 2013 and are happy together and with the sociocracy.

Dear Laird, I hope you find a way to make more experience with this wonderful governance method!
Many thanks to the other 5 comments! Hi Nathaniel! Happy to read your comment too!
Barbara Strauch

Barbara Strauch said...

Answer to Critique of Sociocracy
1. Does not address emotional input
Barbara Strauch (Leader of the Sociocratic Center Austria Sorry, my english is not so perfect!):
My answer to 1) Does not adress emotional input
Eventually this handling of the sociocracy is practised in organisations which do not know Diana Leafe Christian, Marshall Rosenberg, Manitonquat Medicine Story, Scott Peck, John Croft, etc.. It seems they use only the sociocratic method. Sometimes groups do not know, that scm (Sociocratic Circle Method) only helps to organize the work and helps to make decisions. But it is not a method to handle emotions. It seems, the one who talk about this, is no expert in scm, because scm is an empty method, where you can fill in every need of a group, also other methods, also time for handle emotions. If there is a need to work out emotions, you need to use methods for doing this. This is not what sociocracy is. I am an expert of sociocracy as well as Communitybuilding and -caoching. And I teach the communitys to learn many methods in this 4 sectors: Vision (dreaming), projectmanagement (planing), organisation (doing) and sheltering (celebrating and handle emotions).
Sociocracy is a method only for the third sector: organisation! Often visionaries and deveolper of methods put every need, what is not inside their own methods little by little in it. And than they call it "My creation". I do not like this! Their are so many visionaries and devolpers nearby myself. I look to find always one, who thought about my problem many years. I look first at this solutions - as Christopher Alexander´s patternlanguage. I am very greatful for all this people and I am happy for all their solutions in so many fields. Only one of them, but thank god not the only one, is Gerard Endenburg and his "Sociocracy".

2. Double linking of committees (or “circles” in sociocratic parlance)
to 2a): No, this not the most important motive for the double linking. The most important motiv is to relief the leader from to be teared apart. The leader is not alone in the higher circle, bringing all the decisions down to his workinggroup. The reason to have a doublelink is to have a representive person near the leader, who is equivalent in the decisionmaking of the higher circle. The Representative has the same responsibility as the leader. But his role is to bring the needs of his circle into the decisions of the higher circle.
to 2b): Never try to solve something that is no problem! This is one of my first mottos. If anybody forces all the 4 basic-rules of scm into any litte community-group, he fails! Bring to the organisations only what they need. Never what they do not need! Sociocracy is flexible and adaptable. Little gruops do not need a double link, because there is only one circle and they make their decisions in this circle only. To organize the execution, they do not need additional circles. And that is why they need no double linking!

Barbara Strauch said...

3. Selection process calls for surfacing candidate concerns on the spot
to 3a) The Sociocratic method is encouraging this.
to 3b) In the „open election“ (4th Basic-rule of scm) you do not necessarily have to say hard things. You only have to say your opinion on the persons skills and opportunities. You have to talk nonviolent as Marshall Rosenberg tought us. The feedback is wonderful for everyone and helps coming out with persons skills, helps the person who is elected from only one other or from many others to feel encouraged and got a mandat for the issues to be done. I only have good memories to all of these elections I ever experienced.
If you think there is a need to say hard things to anybody, I suspect you do not know Marshall Rosenberg. Please look for methods, where you can handle the need „to say hard things“ without using violence (physical and verbal) and please read some books of Manitonquat Medicine Story for learning, saying your trough without saying hard things!
to 3c) While any sociocratic meeting, you do not critizise people. Also not during an „open election“. (Critique is not helpful for people to lern new things!) There is a facilitator looking at the communication-culture. If anyone cannot find nonviolent words to say his opinion, the facilitator will help to find him nonviolent words everytime.
to 3d) If we do not critisize, we feel well and feel no need to respond, except to say thank you.
to 3e) You think, it is good to build communities with much critique? I do not think so.
to 3f) We use the „open election“ in the case, we need someone to execute our desicions. In the sociocracy we have no „positions“ where somebody can exercises his power. We do not „select“ but „elect“ people while we give them our respect and esteem.
to 3g) Because there are no groups with only mature and self-aware individuals, you need methods which teach them hearing to anybody, give space for anyones opinion, make secure fields of non-critical-communication. That is why we, in Austria have only good experiences with NVC (Marshall Rosenberg), Circleway (Manitonquat Medicine Story), Transition Movement (Joanna Macy), Dragon Dreaming (John Croft ) and Sociocracy (Gerard Endenburg) and many others. If you do not take all this knowledge, you bring all your grups only to many many conflicts. And that is the reason, why they will need your help lifelong. I better like to make them independently with tools, which teaches them well communications, esteem and learning togehther with joy.

4. The concepts of “paramount” concerns, and “consent” versus “consensus”
to 4a) I am sorry, I feel you have no experiences with sociocracy. The big difference between Konsent and konsens is to look to our common goals, which we created together, to build up our world. Konsens is, when we all have one opinion. Konsent is, when nobody is thinking we will not achiefe our common goals with implementing that proposal. In making decisions with konsent, everybody have to take his responsibility and look at the common goal while making his desicion. So I show in this method, that I trust in everyone that he will help to reach the common goal. If you do not trust in everyone, and instead of this you allow some people to say No without taking responsibility to the comon goal, you hit a wedge between this one and the rest of the group. This is the mechanism of majority principle and also of konsensus, which brings so many conflicts into all this communities.
to 4b): This is one of the aspects but not the only one. See earlier paragraph.
Not to be perfect is es very important issue in sociocracy. Because we can better go along without beeing perfect. In sociocracy we can change the decision next week, when we find a better solution grounding an new informations.
to 4c) Sociocracy is educating participants exactly like that. If you have a method just as good as sociocracy, please use it often.
to 4d) No, unfortunately. Look at the higher paragraph.

Barbara Strauch said...

5. Rounds are not always the best format
to 5a) You can do all this. Maybe it will take more time to make decisions. Thats all what the 4 rounds in the sociocracy will help to shorten – the time to make sustainable decisions.
If I as a sociocratic expert in action think that other methods are useful for the moment, I offer them to the gruop. Always the gruop chooses what they will do next.

to 5b) I ask myself if you are interested in equivalence of people or if you think it is better to here only the ideas of the fast and loud participants of a group? More wise is it to here also to the slowly and silent ones. The Indians did also know this and talked only with a talkingstick for making decisions. If your opinion is to learn all the people to be fast and loud, it will reduce the diversity and wisdom of the human being.

to 5c) This is what I told you at the beginning. Do not think sociocracy is the only tool for building community. It is one of the best tools to make decisions in communities. I learnd this in the last 15 years.

6. Starting with proposals
to 6a) In scm we always make (in the circle, maybe plena) a list of needs before we instruct one or two (open elected) persons to work out a proposal. This has the best effect and take a short time for the whole gruop.

to 6b) From what source do you have your informations? It seems like you never worked in a sociocratic organisation? It would help you talk about using scm in communities with Diana Leafe Christian.
Thank you for all your objections. This helped me to designate many wonderful consequences of the sociocratic method. Thank you!