Tuesday, 20 August 2013

The Five Dysfunctions of a Democracy

I have just been reading The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, by Patrick Lencioni. While I was reading it I realized that the principles discussed in the book are not really limited to management or executive teams at all. They are principles of democratic deliberation, and help explain why this process sometimes fails or becomes corrupted or unproductive. Of course, I realize that this is a complex topic that I will have to simplify in order to fit it in a blog post. This post contains my thoughts about how these concepts can be applied to address failures of modern democracies to engage in productive decision-making deliberations.

First, what are the five dysfunctions of a team? Well, they are not five separate dysfunctions as much as five effects which stem out of a lack of trust and escalate to different levels. This figure explains it best.
Lencioni writes, "In the context of building a team, trust is the confidence among team members that their peers' intentions are good, and that there is no reason to be protective or careful around the group" (195). Of course, this does not translate well to democratic politics. What I would say is that trust in a democracy is built on confidence in the deliberative and reasonable ability of a democratic population. A belief that most people do want the best for themselves, their families, and their communities, and that it is possible to address touchy subjects or controversial topics without starting a civil war.

A good example of a controversial topic in Europe is immigration. It is a favourite topic of populistic politicians from the right or conservative side of the aisle. Intellectuals and parties closer to the center or left like to discard these people and their supporters as "racists, fascists, and Nazis," thereby effectively signaling that they are a no-count crowd who cannot be taken seriously in public debate, and they should be silenced using all "democratic" bullying means and tactics available. We can look at Sweden as an example. As one journalist wrote, the statements in Sweden about inherent unity and coherence have become more shrill as the actual presence of difference and discord has become more obvious. It has come so far that almost one fourth of the electorate have voted for a party that the media have branded as insincere and unfit as participants in the public debate http://www.aftenposten.no/meninger/Frykten-for-Sverigedemokratene-7109741.html#.UgjSAJLXqSo Meaning that a significant part of the population is ostracized from the process. This fear seems to me to be the manifestation of an absence of trust in the electorate and their ability to reason.

This absence of trust logically leads to a fear of real debate or fear of conflict. Ideological debate should be vigorous and passionate, and it should be inclusive. The issue should be addressed, rather than trying to make a value judgment about the person defending or propagating a certain stance with ad hominem arguments (attacking the person who discusses an issue to discredit his/her point of view). In Sweden, words like "communist," "racist," "fascist," are used publicly in some of the most read newspapers, and seem to dominate the public discourse. Despite this, there is a seeming harmony among the political establishment and the established media that immigration is not a problem in any way, and it does not need to be debated. A large portion of the population seem to disagree. Any person highlighting difference and disunity is easily made out to be the proponent of difference and disunity. Real debate and conflict leads to a solution which is not compromise (it does not try to please everyone), but it is a solution which the group can agree to because everyone felt that they were listened to and that their argument was seriously considered. Without an inclusive debate, the result becomes artificial harmony. We pretend like we agree, but inside we are boiling.

The real problems from this become more visible at the next level. Because there was no real debating of the conflicting opinions, and all sides were not heard equally, there is no commitment to the solution that won. Thus, policies are not enforced, social programs are undermined, and any initiative decided on in this way, while trying to mend the social fabric, actually ends up tearing it further apart. Many participants start feeling like they are not a part of a team, a community, or a nation, but that they are stuck together with people they fundamentally disagree with and cannot communicate with. More battle lines, groups, and subgroups form. The people become more disgruntled and grasp for anyone who can articulate their frustrations and anger.

This again leads to Avoidance of Accountability and low standards. Especially, it leads to low standards of public discourse. Arguments deteriorate to shouting matches. Degrading remarks and labels become the norm. Groups and subgroups talk within their groups and reinforce each other's stereotypes and prejudices without engaging opposing or even slightly differing groups. There seems to be less and less of a common foundation that anyone can agree upon. Why respect the democratic process for gaining power if that system favors your enemy? Why obey the rule of law which is enforced by your enemy? Why do anything unselfishly or give up anything when it only gives your enemy more resources and power? And gradually institutions, systems, and conventions, built up by debate and agreement over centuries until they are taken for granted, slowly grind down and deteriorate.

The consequence in a business is Inattention to Results with Status and Ego as the only driving motivations for any action. In a society, the consequences can be much more severe. There is now no more national agenda, since nobody can agree on anything. Instead, we have the Hobbesian war of "everyone against everybody" with small groups all clamouring for power, success, and domination against all others. At this point one can hardly even speak of a nation. Rather there are tribes, clans, and parties trapped within artificial boundaries, forced to live close to people they hate and despise. As Paul Woodruff writes in First Democracy: "Without harmony, there is no democracy . . . Without harmony, the people have no common interests. What could 'government FOR the people' mean, if people are so badly divided that there is nothing that they want, together? Without harmony, government rules in the interest of one group at the expense of another. If harmony fails, many people have no reason to take part in government; others conclude that they must achieve their goals outside of democratic politics altogether, using money, violence, or even the threat of terror" (81). 

OK, so now I have painted the scary picture which can be the result of deficient democratic deliberation or rather, a lack of trust and debate. So how can these deficits be remedied? We have these deficits to some degree in all democracies and national as well as local deliberative bodies. Well, Lencioni has a whole list og exercises and ideas for how these can be overcome, and those who want them all can read the book ;) Here is a quick list of some:
To overcome absence of trust: share personal histories, invite members to be critical of their participation in the deliberation process and mention one way in which they contribute and one way in which they most hinder good deliberation, create situations where cooperation is essential for success.
To overcome fear of conflict: mine for buried disagreements and shed the light of day on them (call out sensitive issues and encourage people to work through them rather than avoiding them), create a setting where the road out goes through and not away from the conflict.
To overcome lack of commitment: dare to give up the ideals of consensus and certainty. Create smaller and safer environments where groups can make decisions together, agree on what has been agreed upon and should be communicated, and then increase the level of complexity.

A good start though would be to open up the debate. Let people share what they believe and feel without attaching a lable to it. People with valid concerns must be listened to if they are supposed to feel that the deliberation process has any kind of legitimacy. You don't have to agree with them, but try to understand them at least! How did they get to where they are today? What are some things you can agree on? Try to listen to their stories. Trust that they are just as intelligent as you are, and they probably have reasons for what they do and what they believe. If that could happen locally and nationally, that would be a great first step. Immigration, as many other touchy subjects, is filled with uncertainty.

Though some experts and politicians may claim to have all the answers, nobody knows what limiting or expanding immigration will lead to in a country. Nobody knows for certain whether a country will become richer, happier, and more accepting or whether it will disintegrate into different societies living after different laws with different languages hardly agreeing on anything. There are definitely precedents for both in history. Except for USA few Western nations have had the kind of demographic shifts and movement of peoples they experience today. Nobody knows if the integration process could be improved, or how. Nobody knows the best road to go forward for certain. In First Democracy, Paul Woodruff writes, "Athens had developed a system of decision making that presumed the fallibility of everyone concerned and compensated for it through open debate on an adversarial model--a model that works only if both sides are free to speak. Besides debate, what could the Athenians have done without knowledge?" (175). We can rely on so-called "experts" or oracles. But they cannot be trusted with things they cannot know. "Far better to submit such issues to debate and resolve them with a vote . . . adversary debate, followed by a vote, is a rational way of handling murky issues--better than tossing coins . . . and far better than letting the leaders pretend to have so much knowledge that we can let them make decisions on their own" (175).