Peeling the onion: A Sociocratic way of dealing with a problem

In most organizations problems are treated as something bad and it must be avoided or solved ASAP.

Sometimes the psychology of solving the problems does not help to go to the root of the problem. The problem you see in the organisation is the tip of the iceberg. There is a big hidden aspects of the problem, which if not skillfully taken out and solved, it will then just change its shape/form and will continue to stay in the organisation. We are eager to solve problems before we truly understand their depth. It is important to peel away the layers in order to address the deeper issues that lie underneath the surface. Like an onion has many layers that cover its core, problems in your organization are also hidden. You will find them under layers of assumptions, ignorance, neglect, lack of skills, bad training, etc. To get to the root cause of these problems, those undesirable layers need to be peeled away, one-by-one.

In Sociocracy, problems/objections/tensions are not treated as bad instead they are welcomed as a gift which needs to be unwrapped.

Once a problem is experienced in a Sociocratic organisation, it is held with care and everyone tries to skillfully navigate through it while focusing on the root cause of it. First it is brought up in a meeting to everyone’s attention (The principal here is transparency). And then the problem is unwrapped and all the dimensions of it are brought up on the table. And towards the end everyone gets the platform to offer the solution (The principal here is equivalence). Final decision is made with everyone’s consent, keeping in mind that the final decision is the specific, measurable, time bound and reviewable (The principal here is effectiveness).

Let me tell you a story of how a problem in a guesthouse was solved using the principles of Sociocracy…

In a small guesthouse, there was a chef, let’s call him Shyam, Who was working in the guest house kitchen from last 10 years.

One day one of the employees spotted Shyam taking two bottles of milk from the guest house for his personal use. When the guest house manager found out, he didn’t do anything to stop it. Partly because everyday milk was in spare quantity.

When the owner of the guest house came to know about it, she kinda freaked out. Of course, this was a serious situation where one employee is taking stuff from the organisation and other employees are ganging up and not informing about this to the owner.

It was important to stop Shyam to take milk for his personal use because this might influence other employees to take stuff from guest house for their personal use. Owner decided to make use of Sociocratic meeting to scold Shyam in front of everyone to teach him and others a lesson. When I came to know about owners plan, I immediately intervened to stop her to carry out her plan.

Scolding an employee publicly does induce fear in them and in other employees but it also reduces the quality of the relationship between employee and employer. After all, employees are also human and humans have a high degree of self respect. They don’t want to continue the relationship if their self respect is hurt.

The other reason I stopped her is because I wanted to go to the root of the problem. Sociocratic meetings are not a platform to scold someone in front of everyone, but it is a platform to have meaningful conversations, to go deeper into the problem, to gather ideas, and to decide plans for tackling the existing problem. There are a number of layers of problem in any situation. So we have to go slowly and skillfully, one layer at a time, to thoroughly understand what’s causing all the trouble. Our goal is to reach at the core of the problem. And often what we see at core is entirely different and unpredictable.

Once she realized this, it was easy for her to focus her energy to go deeper into understanding why Shyam did whatever he did.

So next day in meeting, where everyone was present, we asked Shyam why he is taking milk for personal use. In Sociocracy it is called putting all the cards on table or unwrapping the ball of yarn. This is the first step.

According to Shyam he took milk for personal use because every day so much milk was in spare. Then comes the next question why more milk is bought everyday. Since it was not the peak season of the guest house, not many people were coming but quantity of milk being brought in the guest house is still according to the peak season.

Now, the next question that arises here is: Why quantity of milk is not reduced yet? And whose role is it to control the quantity of milk. In this guest house, it was the manager’s role to make decisions about how much kitchen supplies need to be bought. But for the milk issue, there was another guy in the picture, let’s call him Anil, who was also an employee at the guesthouse, who was bringing milk from his own cows. Anil had hidden power to influence manager to not reduce the quantity of milk because he wanted to earn maximum profit by giving all the milk to the guest house.

Once we reach the core of the problem, it is easy for us to make necessary steps to tackle it. Although after this also, it wasn’t easy to reduce the quantity of milk. Owner had to do a lot of to and fro conversations with manager and Anil. And it wasn’t easy for manager to claim his power back. But over a period of time, and with proper help, the manager was able to claim his power. This process also helped manager to claim his power in other areas of the guest house. This was a total empowerment for him. He now takes decisions with courage and other employees in the guest house listens to him.

Also as you can understand that there was no need to scold Shyam publicly because according to existing system he actually had no power to take any decisions in this matter.

Towards the end, manager started taking decisions about milk quantity according to season and number of guests. Anil eventually understood that his hidden power has to come to an end and he found other options to sell his remaining milk. Shyam got spared with a warning to report this kind of situation to the owner.

Peeling the layers of the onion symbolizes how blind spots and misinformation must be stripped away to uncover the truth.

Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of blog posts I’m curating on Sociocracy in Action in India. If you have a story to tell, please get in touch. — Sandeep Shetty

Author: Kunal Kankhare

I am a Nonviolent Communication certification candidate and a Permaculture practitioner. I am exploring community building tools with an aspiration to bringing forth profound societal change that allows all of us to create intentional sustainable communities where people can live in harmony with each other and with mother earth. My particular interest is in exploring the riddle of social fields: how can practices of nonviolent communication help shift the patterns created by patriarchy and capitalism, towards communities of trust generating collective capacity for action addressing the big challenges of our times?

One thought on “Peeling the onion: A Sociocratic way of dealing with a problem”

  1. This peeling the onion story is very appealing 😉
    It describes a circle applying the principle of “5 whys” to a tricky human relationship situation. There were many blindspots uncovered.
    Thanks, Kunal!

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