Any public speaker will tell you it’s a lot easier to change your audience than it is your material.
That holds true for organizations, as well.
It’s ostensibly a lot easier for organizations to churn through staff—either through firings, lay-offs, downsizings, or whatever—than it is for them to change their management style—which is usually top-down, command and control. And which is often the reason for high employee turnover rates, low productivity and disgruntled workforces.
A new option for organizational governance, however, is slowly but surely starting to creep into enlightened business models. It’s called sociocracy, or dynamic governance.
Putting the prefix “socio-” in front of anything these days loads the word with all kinds of political connotations, most of them negative in today’s environment.
Not in this case.
“Until you learn about sociocracy and how to implement it, you can’t possibly understand what a completely different world it is from standard governance practices,” says Renee Owen, Director of the Rainbow Community School in Asheville, NC. “It’s transformed our organization into becoming incredibly innovative, efficient and equitable. It gave us the ability to develop procedures and policies that consider the needs of everyone.”
Developed in the Netherlands, sociocracy is a system of governance that seeks to create more cooperative, equalitarian work environments that foster friendlier work settings and more creative and productive organizations. And this new form of dynamic governance is starting to take hold in many business start-ups that want to move away from more traditional—and often ineffective—management styles.
John Buck, co-founder of GovernanceAlive, which promotes and trains people in how to implement sociocracy, is credited with introducing this new management style to the U.S.
A Valuable Feedback Loop to Top Management
“Sociocracy works best with organizations that desire to give voice to all of their employees so as to create a valuable feedback loop to top management,” says Buck. “When properly implemented this redesign of power facilitates communications, promotes decentralized decision making, and engenders greater trust throughout the organization, which in turn increases productivity and profits, and enhances worker satisfaction.”
The fundamental operating principle behind sociocracy is the creation of “circles” of employees at every level of an organization, from support staff to board of directors. Each circle corresponds to a unit in the organization. The employees and the unit leader meet on a regular basis to decide by consent how they want to function together. And, using consent, they select a representative who, along with the leader, attends circle meetings at the next circle level.
“Sociocracy works great for us,” says Joe Garrison Daire, a founder of the Blue Scorcher Bakery Cooperative in Astoria, Oregon. “Everyone in our organization is getting to have his or her voice heard. He adds that “people in other industries have gotten wind of what we’re doing in our business and they’re leaning forward, wanting to know more.”
“Connecting Deeply with One Another”
Gail Cunningham, Executive Director of the Handle Institute, a professional association for somatic neurological education and treatment, says when she was first introduced to the sociocratic process she was frustrated by it. “But after a few months I began to realize its value. I now greatly appreciate how sociocracy has made it possible for all voices in our organization to be heard,” she adds.
Sociocracy, however, is not the solution for every organization and person.
“Sociocracy asks for too much before it can be fruitful and useful,” says Arash Sadati, Director of Data Science at a Washington, DC, area firm.
Some of that resistance stems from the fact that most people don’t know anything other than command and control and are unwilling or leery of instituting a new management style into their company or organization.
“There’s that initial learning curve and getting people to trust the process,” says Cunningham.
John Daken, Director of Polarus, a Washington, DC, area mental health service, another proponent of sociocracy, says “we live in a world so atomized from one another. Sociocracy gives us the opportunity to really connect deeply with one another.”
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