The language of collaboration

What can natural languages teach us about self-governance?

Ted Rau
10 min readDec 31, 2020

When two humans talk, they use language to make sense of the world and to connect. Language works in all kinds of ways:

  • People use language to describe the world around them and align their description of the world. This coat is brown, and I think it’s faux fur.
  • Words also serve to make requests or utter directives: Wear a hat and gloves!
  • Sometimes we do things with words, for example when I say I promise to give your hat back — the moment I’m saying this, I am making a promise. Or, by uttering I hereby name you Frank, if authorized, I am giving this person a name.

The reason language works is because we’re cooperative when we speak. If I call the same thing cloud today and yuhr tomorrow for no apparent reason, you will not be able to follow what I am saying. If I do that a lot, you will likely stop talking to me. So whenever I am consistent in my words and I speak so I can be understood, I am being cooperative.

Communication is complex. It has always fascinated me that it even works. Connecting through language is deeply human so we’ve become really good at it. What we do struggle with, as a species, is cooperation beyond a handful of people. Because all of a sudden, words aren’t enough. Yelling something ‘into an organization’ or into society doesn’t do much. It’s just words. To make things happen on that larger, more complex scale, you have to speak a whole different kind of language. That language is governance.

Why aren’t words enough? Words without governance really only work to communicate from one author to one reader:

  • One reader: while an article might reach 1,000s of people, the readers’ brains all read that article separately. You can’t talk to a collective mind that isn’t organized in some way.
  • One author: while we can write an article as a group, that requires group decision-making, therefore governance. There is no group writing without governance. Language without governance can only handle communications from individuals to (sets of) individuals.

So if words are in the speech bubbles between two people (on the left), governance is in the “speech bubble” between teams, or teams of teams (on the right).

Teams of teams (aka organizations) are like group brains that talk to other group brains. And governance is their language to communicate.

Finding those languages of collaboration or cooperation is at the same time the most urgent, pressing challenge of our time. No matter what we are trying to accomplish — may it be around inequality, climate, food justice — it always includes more than two people. Figuring out collaboration means to figure out how to improve everything else as well.

We as a species have found languages for collaboration, like autocracies and democracies. Children acquire those mental models of power like they acquire language. (And what they are learning is changing.) Governance models feel almost like they fell from the sky. But are they “natural”? That’s hard to determine. I do know they create friction wherever we go because they are bending us out of shape. It’s exhausting. Like being forced to speak a language that isn’t ours... and never will be.

The functions of language

What are the functions of language that also apply to collaboration? There are many models of what language does. I will follow a classic framework and boil it down for this purpose.

1. Words connect

We use language to connect with each other. For example, I might say hi to someone or ping someone, or send a text saying “hey” to our kid, just to check in. In direct communication, language helps us to feel a part of a small group. Words help us have a sense of belonging with people.

This is not enough in large organizations. On the organizational level, it’s purpose and meaning that form the bigger narratives that we identify with. That’s why purpose-driven organizations are all the rage. Purpose is the organizational counterpart to saying “I like you” between humans. It is the expression of affinity between collectives and their organizations.

Governance is both an expression and a manifestation of organizational purpose. We focus on our work in order to fulfill our purpose. We think and talk about our purpose in order to focus on our work.

2. Words align and structure

A lot of what we do with language is referential. We describe things in words.

Let’s go back to the example of me saying “clouds” one day and “yuhr” tomorrow. I say look at those beautiful yuhrs, and all I get is blank stares. I also get blank stares when I say Those at beautiful look clouds. In speaking, I am following patterns — what linguists call syntax. Some orders of words make sense, some don’t. (Depends some on the language, but Universal Grammar constraints across languages.)

So language is not only words, it’s also about how they are packaged and ordered. And how they are packaged and ordered, that’s what makes a language a language.

The packaging of language includes sentences, nouns, verbs, adjectives, conjunctions, syntax rules, phonology, morphology. This packaging of language has its counterpart in the packaging of governance, like teams, roles, workflows, guidelines, connections between teams. (I am not the first one to look at it that way.)

Here are a few examples:

  • A sentence is a self-contained “thought”. A team is a self-contained cell of collaboration. A role is something more granular, more like a word. There are different kinds of words (parts of speech), just like there are different kinds of roles, like process roles or operational roles. Without that way of packaging operations and relationships, we lose track of the interrelations, as if I handed you a whole bucket of words.
  • Syntax puts words in order, and workflow designs put actions into order. Without workflow, each task becomes incoherent and ineffective, just like a sentence with a scrambled word order falls apart.
  • With language, I can make requests, like asking you to wash your hands. That’s what a policy does on an organizational level. (Example: All employees have to wash their hands before returning to work.)
  • Statements like “I hereby call you husband and husband”, often containing the marker “hereby”, are called performatives in linguistics. That’s what decisions are when we make a group decision to, for example, form a new team. By making the decision, that team now exists!
    Group decisions are performative acts of saying “we hereby declare this policy in effect”. Quite abstract but essential!
  • In linguistics, we use the term Common ground as an imaginary repository of all the statements we have implicitly and mutually agreed to. If I say today My brother called me this morning, and tomorrow I say I don’t have a brother, only sisters, then you will likely object or question my sanity. In linguistic jargon, we’d say my statement was incompatible with the common ground we had established.
    A policy manual and meeting minutes create common ground on an organizational level. They contain the information that we mutually agree to be organizational facts.

3. Language unleashes creativity

Many people think children imitate language to learn it but that’s only true at the beginning. Yes, early on, children parrot what they hear. But then, they get the hang of it. They know the pattern, they acquire the specifics and start to use it. First imperfectly, but better and better all the time as they “unlock” more and more patterns to use. They say things they have never heard anyone say. And then they never stop producing and producing sentences!

The power of language comes when we combine the patterns and use them again and again, with a good dash of creativity. In language, I can say

“I see the man who has a dog who is wearing a collar which was made by my uncle who is married to Jane who…”

The nesting of structures is called recursion — think fractals. Children are obsessed with recursion. Many children’s songs use recursive patterns. When I allude to recursive patterns with my 11-year old daughter, she typically giggles, Ted, stop, that tickles in my brain!

Organizations get powerful and creative when they have patterns, and they combine them freely. That’s what a fractal pattern of sociocratic circles (teams) is. A circle forms a circle forms a circle forms a circle forms a circle. Endless possibilities!

Note that recursion only works because there is a pattern. Same with scales in music. Without patterns or constraints, creative expression is just incoherent noise.

Language of Governance acquisition?

How do you learn a governance system? Let’s look at creole languages. You might know that in some historical contexts, people blended different languages, forming a pidgin language which is a somewhat simple, messy set of rules. Children who grew up exposed to a pidgin language will, with each other, turn it into a creole language, a language perfectly aligned with how our minds are wired to use language. They add the structure that their brains inherently use to process language.

I sometimes joke that I am a native speaker of sociocracy because I joined an already-sociocratic organization years ago, before having received any training. I just jumped in and learned by immersion. Yet, I wasn’t really a native speaker because I had been exposed to and acquired other forms of organizing. I learned by immersion but as an adult.

So I guess we could say that I speak sociocracy with an accent derived from the early years I have spent in power-over situations. Sociocracy For All started out with an immersion training as a first offering. And Sociocracy For All (SoFA) as a membership organization is like an immersion boarding school for people who want to learn how to speak sociocracy against the current of a mainstream culture!

I know that younger people have an easier time learning sociocracy. Maybe coming generations will be able to acquire sociocracy as true native speakers without the baggage of limiting internal beliefs and mistrust. I am sure it is no coincidence that the developer of sociocracy, Gerard Endenburg, was raised in a consensus-run school as a child. Sociocracy is being used more and more in schools. What will come from that in the next generation?

Let governance evolve

Languages evolve all the time but they don’t evolve freely when they are policed and forced. People try but language creativity typically wiggles its way out of it. I imagine that governance hasn’t evolved because it has been policed and shaped by limiting beliefs.

In our practice of teaching sociocracy, self-organization doesn’t pre-scribe, it de-scribes. Instead of saying how a department ‘should’ be structured, we find out how people want to be structured. What tools and processes can we use that make our work and lives easier? Any structure is temporary, a bit like oral culture. We try on a structure, use it and play with it, and then adapt it as things evolve. As in evolution, change happens.

And like language, not having any structure will probably not unleash the creativity and clarity that patterns give us.

Now, with self-organization on the rise, we are in the middle of the process of forming pidgin governance systems. Future generations might turn them into creole governance systems — forming and using something that works the way our minds work, that’s organic and that has patterns that support our creativity. Exciting!

But what about our accents?

Since none of us can be a native speaker of self-governance (if you read this, I assume you’re too old already!), how can we learn and teach self-organization patterns like a second language? How can we become fluent, and fluent fast?

And what about our accents, our shadows of the past, our ever-present toxic relationship with our own power, expressed in power-over and power-under? I see one of the most challenging patterns in self-organization in our own minds and hearts. The un-learning that needs to be done is daunting. (Maybe we have to make friends with our accents instead of trying to deny them.)

Let’s re-claim governance

“Governance” as a word feels cold, non-human, and not very sexy. That makes sense given that governance was institutional, top-down, inconsiderate, or downright oppressive.

Quite possibly, good, organic governance unlocks as much transformational power as the evolution of language did for the human species.

In thinking and talking about self-organization like sociocracy as a language of collaboration, I want to reclaim it as something humans do or have. We communicate. We connect. We make things happen. Governance is a human thing. It supports who we are and what we want to do. It’s an expression of ourselves as a collaborative species.

Co-founder of Sociocracy For All

Linguist by training :)



Ted Rau

Sociocracy, Non-Violent Communication, Linguistics