December 17, 2019
“Let’s have a vote then”, someone said in a meeting I was in recently.
“No” I objected loudly, surprising myself with my vehemence. The speaker looked taken aback. “What’s wrong with voting?” he asked.
Where do I start? I didn’t feel it useful to give a diatribe about the pitfalls of voting, so confined myself to suggesting that, rather than voting, we simply go round the table and get people to confirm one by one whether they agreed with the proposed course of action or not, and that if not, they state why. We did this and found that everyone was in agreement. Here’s what I might have said if I had had more time.
There’s nothing in principle wrong with voting, so long as you recognise its limitations. Voting can be an effective way of gauging how a group feels about a particular matter at a point of time. But it is a lousy way of making complex decisions. For such matters, it should be a matter of last resort. Here’s why:
Voting is usually binary
Voting provides only limited information. It is a snapshot of how people feel about a particular question put to them, at a particular time. Even half an hour later, it may no longer be valid. It can be compared to taking someone’s blood pressure. It gives you useful information but doesn’t tell you much about how healthy someone is.
2. Voting is subject to manipulation. Someone has to decide what question to ask and when. Hence there is often a lot of political wrangling over the wording of the question and its timing. It is because of the potential for manipulation that the constitutions of many countries fix the intervals and timing of general elections.
3. Voting provides pleasingly simple and clear answers to complex questions and thus is dangerous. Once a vote has been taken (for example, to leave the EU) it can be used to justify all sorts of outrageous behaviour on the basis of “the will of the people”. Former UK Prime Minster Margaret Thatcher said that referendums (a form of mass vote) are “a device of dictators and demagogues”. She was right!
It is because voting is flawed that juries aren’t allowed to make decisions based on a majority vote (except in special circumstances and always after they have debated the matter at length). If they can’t reach unanimity, or close to it, the person is acquitted.
If you have properly talked a matter through, then voting is superfluous, because everyone starts to see the optimum way forward (which may be to delay the decision, because there is a lack of information or clarity). If you rush the process, a vote can too easily result in a majority imposing their view on the minority.
Because our adolescent society has a tendency to rush things, it can help to have a structured ways of talking things through (some call this “deliberative decision-making”). Indigenous groups have been doing this for 1000s of years. There is an example in Nelson Mandela’s autobiography “The Long Walk to Freedom”, where he describes tribal meetings, called by the regent (the chief of the region) to discuss matters of import to the community. It was, Mandela says, “democracy in its
purest form”. Everyone who wanted to speak did so, all men were free to voice their opinions and were equal in their value as citizens. Many speakers would criticise the regent, who would sit quietly and listen without reacting. Only at the end of the meeting, after some kind of consensus had been reached, would the regent speak, to sum up what had been said. There was no vote!
Choose consent, not majority rule
In meetings these days I usually encourage people to adopt what I think of as the sociocracy approach, which I learned from Sociocracy 3.0 co-developer James Priest. The aim is to seek consent (but not necessarily consensus, much harder to obtain). When it feels like a group is ready to come to some conclusion, one person makes a proposal on which everyone votes. The voting is done in a very particular way. Each person can vote in one of three ways:
- thumbs up (I wholeheartedly approve);
- thumb horizontal (I agree with the proposal, with some concerns); or
- thumb down (I object to the proposal proceeding).
The idea is that you don’t proceed until all (reasoned) objections have been dealt with and when all concerns have been heard. In this approach, objections and concerns are seen as precious information, and key enablers in achieving better decision-making. In this method, everyone wins, and there’s no reason for anyone to have bitter feelings.
Of course, not every decision should be mulled over at great length. If a group needs to decide something quite straightforward (like who to use to design a new website, or which room to hire for the next meeting) or something truly urgent, it is far better to rely on individuals or small teams to make a quick decision. A really important part of governance is deciding which decisions need mulling over by the group as a whole and which can be left to individuals to decide.
As I have spent time with groups working in this way, I find I have become more patient with the (sometimes messy) work of getting a group to reach consent. At the same time I have become less tolerant of attempts to rush decisions through. I have learned that hasty decision-making proves, in the long-term, to be costly, inefficient and divisive.
These methods are catching on in business circles. If only someone could find some way of transferring such methods to the political realm too — to electing a US president, say, or deciding the right relationship for the UK to have with the EU. When that happens, the world will truly be transformed for the better.