Our blind spot


John Buck is an internationally recognised sociocratic consultant and CEO of the international firm, Sociocracy Consulting Group. He specialises in organisational structure, decision-making, meeting and retreat facilitation, and conflict resolution. He was the first sociocratic consultant outside The Netherlands certified to do training in the United States.Earlier this year, Shammi Nanda co-organised a Sociocracy Yatra with John that travelled all over India, and AhimsaGram is organising a Season of Sociocracy again in October this year. John Buck in conversation with Shammi Nanda.

What inspires you to spend most of your time living and sharing Sociocracy?
This topic has been important for me for a long time. I deeply want to contribute to the idea of living democratically. Businesses and organisations are a whole field of human activity that have not let us to be equals. We’ve had movements in the USA about women’s rights, rights not to be slaves, voting rights, and so on, but the right to be enfranchised in what you’re doing at work is not there. We have a whole ownership structure controlling work.

So, it’s interesting. Are you saying that there is a blind spot of this civilisation right now, that we’re not able to see that we’re not creating equal opportunities for everybody to contribute?
Right. Originally the insight came to me when I got out of college and got my first job at Boeing as a tactical writer. I remember coming back to work on election day after voting for the Mayor of Seattle. It occurred to me that I could vote for the Mayor of Seattle, because we’re in a Democracy, but I couldn’t vote for my boss. Given a chance, I would’ve voted for him, because he was a great boss and I liked the job, they paid me well. But I was upset at a pretty deep level, that, hey, if democracy is so good how come they’re not using it at the Boeing Corporation? And, it really hit me deeply, in ways that I couldn’t understand for quite some time, that I did not have an equal voice at my job.

And what was the cost of not having a voice or the perception that you didn’t, when you were working?
It’s a little bit like what’s the cost of somebody being a slave, not that I was a slave exactly, but later on, I got laid off from that job and literally a hundred thousand people got laid off at the same time because Boeing sold no airplanes that year. The layoffs were so bad that they ended up closing down the building I was working in. A 300-person department shrunk down to about 10, and my boss fought like crazy to keep me; another worker even volunteered to be laid off in my place, but they couldn’t do it. And despite all of that respect and message, that actually, I was doing fine, I still felt like I was worthless. I’d been told I was worthless by the system and I just felt, not valuable. So it was clear to me, that as much as you might want to think you’re an individual, you internalise this message from your society, that your voice is nice, but you’re just a servant, you’re not really a part of the business, you’re expendable, we have machines that we can sell off, we can take your job, you’re just another piece, and we don’t see you as a full human being.

So how would that change if people were able to elect or select their boss?
Electing their boss is just one aspect of it. Being able to actually be an entrepreneur within the system, is even more fundamental. Being an entrepreneur requires that you are able to make decisions, that mean something in some sphere of activity. People who are used to thinking for themselves, used to being true partners are able to think much more creatively and have a different sense of self and self-worth, that brings more dignity to life. In the US, when the country was formed, nine out of ten people, were independent farmers. Their economic and political status was on an equal basis and they could truly be said to be independent, free and responsible for their own well-being. Of course, I am ignoring slaves and women of that time; I’m only talking about the white males.

Over time, that changed. By about 1900, 50% were farmers, and now, it’s less than 1% who have their own farms and live independently. All those other independent people had to go work for somebody and are not in charge of their own destiny. To me, that loss of independence undermined the idea of liberty, the independent spirit, the pride and self- respect that comes with it. Why can’t we develop a way for people to be enfranchised as opposed to being a servant.

Is it that when you talk of dignity, it’s how can we be seen as full human beings?
Yes, if the system doesn’t see you as a full human being, if it sees you as a servant, then you internalise that message. And, of course, there are other reasons – when people are actually working together with equal voice, they become much more productive. Interestingly, Google did a study recently, where they asked what really makes an effective team. They went through all kinds of data since Google loves data. They looked at differences in age, gender background, etc. They finally did come down to two factors that makes a team really effective. One is everybody spending an equivalent amount of time speaking in the group and the other is that they have high emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills. When you put those two things together, they’re actually related. And Sociocracy does provide structures and functions that support equivalence. So, when you follow sociocratic processes, you’re probably going to get a lot of effectiveness and productivity – wonderful capitalist outcomes. But, my primary motivation is to live in a system that treats me as a full human being.

Do you see it in some way connected to a deep spiritual practice also?
I’m a Quaker, and they’ve always run around causing trouble in society, for example, insisting on women having the right to vote. In Quaker terms, this kind of advocacy probably grows from a divine leading. God may speak to you in the form of a leading, a spiritual leading. Sociocracy is such a leading for me.

Have you seen Sociocracy work in some organisations, and can you give examples?
When an organisation internalises Sociocracy, really starts to use it, they inevitably start performing very well. Yesterday, I had lunch with my friend Richard Heitfield, who runs a factory that makes speciality plastics parts, as well as some mass production items such as skateboard wheels. They’ve been using Sociocracy for a long time and have managed to withstand Chinese competition. A dramatic thing happened back during the Great Recession in the US, a few years ago. Many of their customers went out of business. They would call up and say something like, “We’ve been your customer for 15 years, we’re going out of business, cancel our order.” Richard was really despondent. He was ready to close down the company. But his general circle, which at that point was very well trained in Sociocracy, said, “Richard, please go sit in the corner; you’re not able to help right now. It’s OK, we’ll solve the problem”. They sat there and had a very transparent conversation about who’s going to get laid off. At one point somebody said,”George, you’re about to have a new baby. I can stand the economic shock of layoff better than you can. Let’s lay me off and I’ll apply right away for state unemployment insurance.” What a contrast to my layoff experience at Boeing! The General Circle also looked at their scrappage rates. That had been meaning for some time to make that effort. By reducing materials scrappage rates they were able to drop prices. They were creative in other ways and managed to pull the company through. In other words, leadership came from someplace other than the regular leader. The company’s doing fine today.

How is Sociocracy different from Democracy?
Sociocracy is a subset of Democracy. Democracy is ruled by “the demos,” the general mass of people, who may or may not have a relationship with each other. Sociocracy is ruled by people who know each other. “Socios” means partner in Spanish. It means people who know each other and have a common aim, common purpose.

What’s bringing you back to India, in less than a year’s time.
I had a wonderful time in India the first time. I had reverse culture shock coming back to the USA. It seemed strange to sit in a chair, eat rice with a fork. I feel like India is a very vibrant place and is full of people who’re thinking entrepreneurially, questioning things, it’s a very creative time in Indian culture. My hope would be that people in India grow both their economy and their society. I think India could lead the world in showing how to have a creative and cultured society, rather than just people who’re mechanically going to work, pursuing money. Gandhi’s vision of equality and respect for all, has the power to also increase economic productivity.

And you think Sociocracy can support that culture here?
I think it can help keep the beautiful culture that India has vibrant and diverse, while it undergoes the radical fast transformation that is being driven by the technological explosion happening throughout the world. It could help prevent India from losing her soul to the machines.

I hear from you that Sociocracy will be able to integrate the complexity and diversity that is there in India. It’s a space where bullock carts and cars run on the same road, so how can we take in all of these voices in this country, and I’ve experienced myself that Sociocracy has the answers for it.

The reason you might run a society sociocratically is that the current governance systems we have are very linear, and they are not designed to cope with the kind of complexity that we’re dealing with right now. The technological explosion has rocked everyone back on their heels. We have to have new ways of governing that are able to handle the incredible complexity.