Non-hierarchies: Creating the conditions for a new ecology of organisational governance – a response to Professor Farley

By Sarah Houseman

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Co-operation is the behavioural key to transform human society said Professor Joshua Farley in his keynote opening ANZSEE '19. Co-operation transforms the individualism, greed and self-interest that marks global capitalism and the paradigm of "never-ending growth". This article is written as a response to Professor Farley's question: How can we develop institutions capable of co-operation?  I offer some instances of refreshing new ecologies of organisation, emerging in the work of contemporary non-hierarchical organisations taken from my PhD research. The lived experience of four organisations illustrates the diverse ways co-operation builds capacity and develops organisations based on trust and relationship.

Now on the cusp of 2020 A.D, many recognise we are in big trouble as a species. Leaders and governments are struggling to respond adequately to the nightmarish and destructive conditions we are experiencing. But as a collective, humanity is not yet willing to take responsibility for having created the problems of heat, fire, flood, ice, mass extinction and eco-system collapse. It is time for radical re-thinking, drawing on human resilience and creativity, challenging assumptions that underpin our institutions and systems, and abandoning practices antithetical to living within the biophysical limits of Earth. In this context, I invite you to wander with me into a new world of working together, but first our foundational starting point.

People working together is a basic cultural and economic building block. Working together effectively is the aspiration of organisations of all sizes. Hierarchy is the normative model of organisation. Structures other-than-hierarchy are dismissed and disregarded. Consequently, theories of change in management and organisational development focus on amending and improving hierarchical models of organisation and providing leaders with greater human and strategic skills.

It was a challenge to locate organisations who were committed and confident in their non-hierarchical governance. Each of my case studies chose a non-hierarchical structure because of its alignment with their values and their mission in the world: Two have an equal pay policy, Enspiral’s Livelihood Pods allow members pool their income. Walking their talk. Part of their efforts to transform inequitable social, environmental and economic policy/practices. Friends of the Earth Melbourne (FoEM), founded 1974; the Enspiral Foundation 2007, New Zealand, the Pachamama Alliance, 1997, and The Sustainable Economies Law Centre (SELC) 2009 California.

There is no 5-step model to become non-hierarchical. Each case study is offered as a singular expression, instances of organisational practices that are historically contingent expressions of governance and indicators of emergent ecologies of organisation. Where organisation is “a formed community, moving beyond transaction, when ‘I’m seen’ and ‘I belong’ (Participant interview).

Imagine an organisation where the inter-personal level of governance is nurtured. The most commonly used words participants used to describe the quality of their culture: Kind, caring, reflective, ambitious, intentional, sensitive, collaborative, respectful. Connected, community, entrepreneurial, generous, intelligent, ambitious, experimental, trusting; Generative, compassionate, committed, acknowledged/seen; Loving, adaptable, flexible, inclusive, personalised, strategic, supportive, welcoming and collaborative.

A significant task of any form of governance is making decisions together. These organisations draw on Holacracy, sociocracy, Teal, the Advice Process and DARCI as practice tools. My first observation was that their governance processes were rigorous, rational and considered. They were also energised by humour, playful moments and an abiding care for the individuals in the circle. This easy inclusion of 'other' behaviours gives an indication to the human capacities being strengthened through non-hierarchical governance.

Co-operation builds strong organisations. In non-hierarchies when all voices are listened for individuals ‘learn for participation’. At the same time, they ‘unlearn’ dominating behaviours previously rewarded in hierarchy. Human skills supporting decentralised working cultures begin with listening, curiosity and respect.

Why is this so different from a hierarchy? Hierarchy is in our cultural DNA. The sets of power relationships defining superior/inferior positions within this normative worldview are predictable, coded and expected. Sustained by the Cartesian hierarchical mind/body dualism, hierarchy has become the template for relationship, creating an oppositional dynamic between leader/follower. This patterning is not limited to organisation. Hierarchies are foundational to the operation of Western institutions, to the methodology of colonialism. It underpins and limits our social organisation and its expression: man/woman, culture/nature, white/black, rational/emotional: The effect is to naturalise domination over another.

20th Century social movements and digital technology support new organisational ecologies to be imagined, theorised and prefigured. In developing alternative conceptual frameworks, ideas from feminism, complexity and systems thinking, post-humanism and post-structuralism challenge the conceit of enlightenment thinking. Dissolving the possibility of making neutral, unbiased decisions, separated from the influence of emotions and value frames embedded in culture, race, class or gender beliefs.

A vital quality of care for relationship distinguishes these non-hierarchical cultures in a manner that does not rely upon individual action. These examples have been given with the confidence that co-operative institutions are possible. The work to take such a transformation to scale is big, but doable with commitment: “We have power through being together. When you co-operate you create beautiful patterns”(Participant interview). The question is whether humanity has the will to evolve beyond the hierarchical paradigm of domination.

Sarah Houseman is a PhD candidate@La Trobe University exploring governance models, NGO leadership, paradigm shift, consciousness, integral ecology with a background as an educator and organisational leader.