Sociocracy – a Compelling Governance Model for Worker Co-ops

By Kenzie Love

Democratic member control is a key co-op principle, and as the International Co-op Alliance’s guidance notes for the seven principles state,  “democracy is a simple concept: the governance or control of an organization by its members through majority decision-making.” 

Compared to the autocratic decision-making that characterizes many traditional businesses, majority decision-making might seem like a desirable alternative. And if the choice is framed this way, it is. But majority rule has its own drawbacks. 

“Democracy is interesting,” observes Lynn Hannley of Communitas, “but it creates winners and losers because 50 percent plus one win, and the rest lose.”

A growing number of co-ops, however, are experimenting with a different form of decision-making: the consent model. This allows for decisions that may not be perfect, but are considered “good enough for now and safe enough to try”, and that everyone who is involved agrees to abide by. Hannley contrasts this favourably with majority decision-making.

“A situation where we’re collectively working together to ensure that people can live with the decision is quite a different kind of circumstance,” she says.

Consent-based decision making is part of a governance model known as sociocracy, which originated in the 1980s Netherlands. The model involves devolving decision making and accountability to interconnected working circles. The circles, in turn, are the people who are most directly affected by the issues in question.

“It creates a more egalitarian workplace in which the people who are doing the work are the ones that are making decisions about that work,” says John McNamara of the Northwest Co-operative Development Center  “and then they connect with other groups within the organization to meet the overall mission of the co-op.”

This model, McNamara believes, leads to greater engagement by a co-op’s members, hence the term it’s also sometimes known as, “dynamic governance.”

“This allows more engagement or voice of the workers in that it builds in that democracy that doesn’t just stop at the membership meeting where you vote for directors,” he says.

“It actually puts it in the whole system, and really makes it vibrant and dynamic.”

While this may be the case, fears sometimes arise that sociocracy leads to longer meetings or gives one person the ability to serve as a roadblock to decisions everyone else favours. McNamara, however, believes these are misconceptions, noting that he’s been in meetings that use parliamentary decision-making that take just as long as those using sociocracy. What people might fail to appreciate, he feels, is the different way sociocracy treats objections.

“When somebody has an objection, it doesn’t need to be seen as a sort of win-lose,” he says.

“It’s more about listening to what that objection really is, and finding out what the needs of that person are to help craft a better solution to the problem that your organization’s facing.   Again, really that can take time, because it’s not our training to deal with conflict or objections in Western society.”

But as with any decision-making system, sociocracy won’t automatically succeed by virtue of being in place. Hannley believes there are two criteria necessary for it to be effective.

“There are two things in terms of good decision making,” she says. “Everybody has to have the same knowledge base, because if they don’t, some people know more than other people, and knowledge is power. So it’s really important for people to have that information base. And the other thing is that people need to feel comfortable and safe in the discussion forum to express their opinions, so that they don’t feel like they’re being threatened by anybody as part of the process.”

Thus while sociocracy might seem more demanding or complex than majority decision making, McNamara believes the basic principles behind it are actually quite simple.“The idea is to have people be engaged,” he says, “have a voice, and have the ability to consent to what they do.”  And it’s hard to dispute that these are desirable components of a successful worker co-op.