Sociocracy: revolution, chocolate, peace, work

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Sociocracy: revolution, chocolate, peace, work – a short history

Originally published at SociocracyUK By Martin Grimshaw and Francois Knuchel – revised 10 December 13

Early history, pacifism and Quakers

Beatrice Cadbury

Beatrice Cadbury, Quaker and pacifist. With kind permission of Jeroen Koning and Fiona Joseph

Sociocracy is as yet little known in the UK. It is, however, more widely practiced in mainland Europe, after being developed in depth in the Netherlands several decades ago. It was first proposed in 1851 by philosopher Auguste Comte, founder of sociology and the Religion of Humanity in response to the French Revolution. Sociocracy was then further developed by Lester Frank Ward, prominent early environmentalist and advocate of equal rights for women, and Kees Boeke. Boeke was influenced by the Quaker movement in Britain and married Beatrice Cadbury, of the famous chocolate family; together they became Quaker missionaries and were expelled from Britain during the first world war as pacifists.

Kees Boeke’s Werkplaats School. From

Boeke was nearly executed as a result of a paper he wrote describing sociocracy as applied in the Werkplaats school he founded in 1926, that was found when he was arrested during the second world war in the occupied Netherlands, for harbouring Jews. One of Boeke’s students, Gerard Endenburg, later developed sociocracy further in the company Endenburg Elektrotechniek in the Netherlands, which marks the beginning of the modern era of sociocratic practice.

What is sociocracy, and why is it relevant now?

Having spread through mainland Europe and Francophone Canada, sociocracy started to accelerate a little over a decade ago, when substantial work appeared in English for the first time. One definition of sociocracy, a form of collaborative governance, is “governance by consent of equivalent individuals.” In plainer English, it might be thought of as an approach to working in which all contribute to shaping and directing the work environment. The SociocracyUK website is a gateway to further simple and comprehensive descriptions, videos, case studies, articles and other resources.

Sociocracy is a system which includes the participation of all those affected in the decision making process. It has been used by individuals, families, schools, third sector organisations and communities like the Non Violent Communication network, and many businesses where it has shown to be more effective than traditional management and leadership approaches. It has been chosen both as an efficient model for organising and interacting, and as a practical method for applying ethics to the workplace. In the face of complex global and local challenges, sociocracy provides an alternative to any one group dominating or a majority steering our collective course against our will; it engages all diverse voices in co-creating the wisest solutions that we can all consent to.

How does sociocracy resolve the barriers to organisational democracy?

Circle meeting

Courtesy Northey Street City Farm

Many organisations seek to increase democracy and accountability in government and institutions. Business schools and entrepreneurs talk of more collaboration, openness and democratic management. But what do we actually mean, in practical terms? Do we mean electing representatives? Do we mean voting? What are the barriers to organisational democracy? It can be seen as time consuming, expensive, cumbersome, and suffering from the tyranny of the majority, adversarial debate, and creating winners and losers.

Sociocracy is a means of achieving democracy and accountability in organisations, in which all actively contribute to its direction. It is more sophisticated, cheaper and easier to apply than democracy, and respects all voices, and solves several problems in the traditional workplace too. The 2011 Employee Engagement Report, by research and consultancy firm Blessing and White, unmasks the reality: that less than 1 in 3 of us feel engaged at work, and almost 1 in 5 is completely disengaged. Meanwhile managers grapple with getting staff to ‘buy in’, a top-down approach that often creates resistance, whereas Sociocracy encourages  all relevant staff to share ownership of policy making. Sociocracy makes work more fulfilling at top and bottom.

Sociocracy is founded upon equivalence of voice, decision-making and elections by consent. Self-organising ‘circles’ carry out work, and ‘double-linking’ representatives interconnect the elements of an organisation. Feedback and evaluation is built into all activities. The top circle, broadly equivalent to a traditional board, maintains connection to the outside world and stakeholders affected by the activities of the organisation and incorporates short and long term planning including sustainability and economic fairness.

SociocracyUK and the crises of our times

At SociocracyUK we feel that this is a critical time for society, business and planet. We feel that sociocracy is a necessary, urgent and unique response to the current financial, environmental and democratic crises. We feel that sociocracy is the sort of model that brings about the New Economics that is emerging in response to these crises of our times, borne of the recognition that work can be more meaningful. Work does not have to be at odds with our own values, trading self esteem for a regular pay cheque. Business does not have to be at odds with the needs of planet and people.

Please sign up at our interactive website SociocracyUK to find out more and stay connected, or please get in touch if you’d like to chat, meet or get involved, help us develop or promote sociocracy in the UK, or get help to introduce it in your place of work.

Further reading on the history of sociocracy:

About SociocracyUK

Martin Grimshaw and Francois Knuchel, SociocracyUK
With thanks to Fiona Joseph, Jeroen Koning, Ted Millich, Gerard Endenburg, Sharon Villines and the Sociocratic community