Collective intelligence, leadership, and dynamics of non-hierarchical groups

Leaders and followers

I’m going to suggest that in our society, whenever two or more people work together, each person takes the role of either leader or follower. (This is a gross over-simplification, but I believe it’s a useful one.) This is not intrinsic ‘human nature’, but a consequence of growing up in our particular society.

Leaders: Decide how the group’s chosen task will be done, delegate sub-tasks, and feel responsible for making sure the task as a whole is successful. They may feel stressed-out and over-worked (especially in voluntary groups). They likely feel personally invested in the task: if it goes well they will feel justifiably proud, while if it goes badly they will feel bad about themselves. If they or the project are criticised they are likely to feel angry and hurt, even if the criticism is gentle and well-intentioned.

Followers: Help complete the task as instructed by the leader. They probably won’t speak up if they think the task is not being done in the best way possible. They don’t feel responsible for the outcome of the task, but they want it to go well. If they dislike the leader’s decisions they will likely resent the leader silently or complain about the leader when they are not around.

In most situations in our lives these leader-follower roles are overt and official: for instance, parent-child, teacher-student, employer-employee, politician-citizen.

As Jo Freeman pointed out in the famous pamphlet The Tyranny of Structurelessness, feminist groups are often officially non-hierarchical, yet unofficially people still fall into the leader-follower pattern.

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Building toward participatory democracy

Most writing that I’ve been able to find on the topic of ‘participatory democracy’ focuses narrowly on decision-making procedures; on consensus decision-making processes, voting systems, workers councils and syndicates, recallable delegates, and the like. All of that stuff is interesting, but I don’t believe this is what we need to focus on in order to actually bring about participatory democracy.

Think for a moment about what it would actually be like for society to be run as a participatory democracy. Very large numbers of people would have to be able to participate in making decisions that affected their lives. The people who live on your street, and the people who work in your local shop, and your local pub, would have to have some way of communicating with each-other, negotiating, and reaching a decision. This doesn’t just require a new set of procedures, it requires new skills, and also a cultural change, a move toward a new social norm of engaged, responsible participation.

Furthermore, the move from representative democracy to participatory democracy would fundamentally change the type of decision that people can make. We’re used to democracy being a multiple choice test, where we choose candicate a, b, or c, but in participatory democracy the questions are long form and open-ended, requiring creative, collaborative problem-solving. Do you have the skills to do this kind of work, in collaboration with people you don’t know, who might come from a different background than your own? I’m fairly sure I don’t. This isn’t a problem of rules and procedures, but of communication skills, and of the social norms that limit the kinds of conversations we are able to have.

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