If we're all equal, then why can't we agree?
Voting is an improvement over autocracy - it distributes more power. Voting presents the image of equality: one person, one vote. Consensus decision making, the usual alternative to voting, also presents an image of equality - the 100% supermajority vote. And yet both of these decision making methods leave many of us deeply dissatisfied. Is there a more effective way to make equality-based decisions?
Let's look at ordinary majority vote first. The one that gets more than 50% of the votes, wins. We are used to considering that fair. But whenever we are in the position of the "loser," we realize that voting divides all people into two groups: the winners and the losers. The losers' needs, ideas and concerns -- even though the losers might form almost half of the group -- can be ignored. The lack of information (why did you vote no? what would you rather see?) and the disfranchisement of those who "lose" harms the entire group, including the winners. A group of equals cannot afford to ignore up to half of its people. That’s the tyranny of the majority. We have gotten used to finding majority vote fair and democratic, but it presents a challenge if what we want is for everyone to be winners and on the same team.
Consensus, at first sight, looks like the perfect solution. No one can be over-powered. All are equals, all have a say. If you have ever been part of a consensus-run organization, you know that pulling off consensus is hard. It is so hard that many groups burn out. So what's happening?
Consensus is hard to find when the group has different preferences and experiences. The first problem: decision-making can take a very long time. When people start dreading meetings, how can we self-govern?
Consensus also is often done in a way that is not formal enough. If someone blocks a decision, then what happens? What are good enough reasons to block a decision? Some groups have well-designed processes in place, but most do not. Sometimes it seems groups are on the same page about how much they are willing to accept something that they don't like -- until they're not. Lack of clarity around blocking decisions and lack of awareness of the options when objections arise are the biggest problems of consensus. We know many people (and we’ve been there ourselves!) who would hesitate before making proposals. If you put out an idea, you first have to ask yourself how willing you are to sit through hours of frustrating meeting time, where peers can shoot down your proposal at any time, with no way forward. If we feel like our decision-making method is getting in the way of new ideas, it is time to evaluate how we make decisions!
Consensus gives too much power to individuals. A committee might have worked on a proposal for months, and when they bring forward to make a decision, any one person can block it. This burns out the do-ers in every organization and can turn entire organization dysfunctional.
Another toxic element that comes in with consensus is the effect of "standing aside." Imagine a group makes a risky but potentially successful decision of investing into a young co-op. One person thinks it is too risky and blocks. Some in the group get upset. Peer pressure lets the objector cave in and choose to stand aside. Consensus-run organizations are not free of power-dynamics! Plus: let's say the risky decision turns into a disaster. What will the person who stood aside say? "See, I told you!" This is toxic for any group trying to navigate through risks and innovation as they operate their business.
In sociocracy, we use consent decision-making. The definition is simple: a decision is made when no one has an objection. If you already make your decisions like that but you call it consensus: congratulations! You've already figured this out. We simply choose to use "consent" as an unambiguous term.
In consent decision-making, an objection means that you have reason to believe that carrying out the proposal will interfere with the group’s ability to carry out their purpose. You don't have to fully agree with the proposal to consent to it. A slogan people in the sociocracy movement use is, "this is good enough for now and safe enough to try." If we accept a not-yet-perfect proposal, we can try things out without getting into the ideological right-or-wrong fights that paralyze so many organizations. Consent asks, “is there a strong reason not to do it?” If not, we're going ahead. Switching to consent can be a liberating experience for consensus-run organizations.
What would have happened in the example of the risky investment if the group had used consent decision-making? They would have heard the objection and would have chosen one of the many options of addressing objections. For instance, they might have chosen to lower the amount or to dig deeper to find out how solid the enterprise is. Either way, the group would have owned the objection together (no finger pointing!) and they would have found a proposal that everyone can consent to. Consent is an active process. Everyone takes 100% responsibility for the decision the group makes. If we're all equals and co-owners, how can one stand aside? We keep our group functional when we consent to a decision that we can work with even if it is not our preference. That way we move forward, experimenting and gathering feedback as we go rather than seeking perfect solutions. Consent is a way to balance group needs and individual needs that works for groups and is perfectly in line with co-op values and shared ownership.
A Real Life Example
Self-organized groups often use decision-methods organically. Imagine 5 friends trying to go out to eat. Two want falafel, three want pizza. If they voted, they'd come to a decision eat pizza, ignoring the two people who wanted falafel. Let's say one of them protests and gets upset. The friends now open it up for discussion again. They try to come to consensus and emotions get high. Each side feels like they're not being heard or considered. After some arguing, they realize that is impossible to find a food they all agree to. Sometimes groups then use compromises which can come at a cost: in this case, the group might split up for lunch, missing out on time together as a group.
What would it look like in consent? In a consent decision, everyone would say whether they could work with a proposal. We might find out that one of the two pizza nay-sayers has a food allergy and cannot eat cheese which rules out pizza. We might also find out that the three pizza-lovers would have preferred pizza but that they are ok with falafel. This illustrates the difference between an objection (food allergy etc) and a preference. When we ask people for their preference, they will start fighting for their preference (pizza! falafel!). If we propose something and ask whether there is a reason not to do it, we have much more room to work with. A decision does not turn into a series of battles, but focuses on finding out whether there are deal breakers like allergies. Consent is safe because it prevents harmful decisions. But it keeps us sane because we are not even aiming for our preferences.
Yes, as equals we want to decide together. Consensus and majority vote, however, have downsides that brings the group and the individuals out of balance. Consent is a decision-making method that has the advantages of consensus (no one can be ignored) while keeping groups innovative and action-oriented in the long run.
More resources for sociocratic decision-making are available at Sociocracy For All
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Ted Rau (2017). If We're All Equal, Then Why Can't We Agree?. Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO). https://geo.coop/story/if-were-all-equal-then-why-cant-we-agree