Making Employees Partners: Does Democracy Work in the Workplace?

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A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.

Professionally, my life’s work has revolved around making work easier and more productive for everyone involved.

So, I find the concept of democratizing the workplace attractive, which involves giving employees more freedom and allowing them to participate in decision-making.

When employees feel empowered in their work, they’re more likely to take ownership of their jobs and contribute more discretionary effort, thereby increasing their productivity.

Should we democratize the workplace?

To succeed, democratization has to take place within a framework guided by leaders.

Yes, your team members should be partners in the accomplishment of goals, but they are not necessarily equal partners. Individual workers should have a say in how things get done, but they don’t have all the decision-making power — nor should they. Many workers lack the training, access to management-level resources, and the specialized knowledge that comes from years of dealing with clients, end users, regulatory issues, and bureaucracy.

Why am I making this distinction?

Because some business theorists believe we should completely democratize the workplace. In particular, they feel we should open all decisions to everyone in the workplace, equally. These individuals feel this would make corporations more fair, just, and responsive.

Business in an imperfect world

It would be wonderful to live in such a utopia, but we don’t. We know from historical experience that giving everyone equal say in an endeavor sharply slows down productivity. (Communism — or the pretense of it — offers a good example).

Someone has to lead. True workplace democratization doesn’t result from giving the company to the workers, unguided; businesses require experienced leaders make the tough calls when people are at loggerheads.

Use these guidelines to give some structure to your democratization efforts:

1. Implementing solid communication

As the leader, it’s your job to communicate the vision and goals to team members as clearly as possible.

Don’t use jargon or beat around the bush, but do let them ask all the questions they like to clarify the issue. Ask employees questions too, especially if you feel there might be even the slightest confusion.

2. Consistently soliciting ideas and opinions

Allow team members to make suggestions on how to improve workflow or increase profit. Give the best ideas due consideration, and check in with your team for sales forecasts and new suggestions for products/services.

Ironically, “crowdsourcing” experiments in large firms show that tapping into collective employee experience often yields much more accurate predictions than top execs and professional experts can achieve.

For example, at retail giant Best Buy, an army of worker volunteers armed with a minimum of financial and historical information provides accurate sales forecasts about 99 percent of the time. Unlike many paid analysts, the volunteers tend to be young, and actually live with and use the products Best Buy sells. They better understand what the target market wants.

3. Empowering workers

Encourage workers to take initiative and try new things without waiting for permission. Let them own their jobs—i.e., give them a say in the outcome of what they do.

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The more control they feel they have, the more discretionary effort they’ll channel into their work. Furthermore, most front-line employees require the flexibility to execute strategy immediately. They can’t wait for permission to trickle down from the top.

Jeremy Eaves is a Director of Human Resources at DaVita, Inc., an international health care organization. He was recently charged with creating an entirely new department.

He says: “I have found that one of the best ways to optimize creative output is to empower my employees to be innovative. When I encourage my team to implement new ideas and seek continuous improvement without waiting for my approval, there is a marked difference in both the quantity and quality of our collective work.”

4. Creating a non-punitive work environment

No one will take things an inch beyond your minimum requirements if they know they’ll face harsh punishment for any mistakes.

This is true no matter how often you solicit ideas, reward them for hard work, encourage initiative, or establish collaborative structures both within and between teams. If you overreact to mistakes, you’ll end up with a “culture of silence” — and your democratization efforts will fail.

Yes, you may need to take disciplinary action sometimes. However, not everything a worker tries will succeed. If workers lack the elbow room to make the occasional error, they won’t try anything new.

Eaves told me, “As a leader, you need to be intentional in setting up an environment where you not only learn from your mistakes, but celebrate the effort in making the mistakes.” He  said. “I can never expect an employee to take a risk in front of me if I can’t exercise humility when someone is vulnerable.”

True openness

Workplace democratization is a complex subject, not easily resolved even in the best of companies and certainly not in this article.

The above pointers can help you achieve a smoother road toward democratization, though they by no means represent a full discussion of the possibilities.

A stronger partnership with your employees is possible if you approach it from a position of strong leadership. You can’t just throw open the gates to the city, but you can take a realistic, structured approach to democratization that guides people toward collaborative, informed decision-making.

This was originally published on Laura Stack’s The Productivity Pro blog.


7 Comments on “Making Employees Partners: Does Democracy Work in the Workplace?

  1. Even though I’m not optimistic about the future of democratization at workplace but yes as you conlcuded a realsitic, structured approach can make the swift change. Good read Laura.

    1. Thanks Vinay! I’ve seen some great examples of where it works well (like DaVita cited above), but you’re right—it’s definitely far from the norm.

  2. Great companies are great communities and function as such. Just like towns and cities that fail to meet the holistic needs of their citizen fail, so to do organizations. Communities nest within each other and overlap to form dynamic ecosystems that benefit the whole. Some things in a community should be decided democratically, and some things should not. Communities naturally evolve around the masses (democracy) or they die, but they need stewardship to grow and thrive and individuals are factious by nature.

    1. Master, you make a great point—democratizing a decision that shouldn’t be decided that way slows it down to a halt. A company can definitely be TOO consensus-driven, where now employees complain, “Let’s just make a decision and move!”

  3. Ms. Stack,

    What you have written about is near and dear to me, as well as being the subject of my dissertation. The workplace should at least show the minimum amount of democracy that is part of the larger environment of which it is a part. Workplace democracy has been desired by employees for decades, it has been the subject of endless academic work, and it is consistent with the workplace of the future.

    The problem is that most leaders and managers fear releasing any notion of power. They fear being made redundant if workers have as much information and ability as they. In the future, employees must know as much or more than managers, and be able to do what the organization needs for organizations to succeed.

    Fear is the problem for both managers and employees. Managers fear loss of power, and employees fear making errors that leads to their termination, or at the very least, makes them feel foolish.

    You have identified the issues that need to be addressed to make workplace democracy work for the success of organizations. None of this is new information. I see the same admonishments in blogs, textbooks, peer reviewed and professional publications. Fear is what keeps it all from working.

    The only true motivation is self-motivation. Creating a work environment where employees can participate without penalties for trying, and where they can be successful is the key. The cries for employee engagement would stop if such work environments were to be the standard rather than the exception. Fear gets in everybody’s way and keeps employees from engaging, and organizations from being great.

    1. Thanks for your note! I agree the only true motivation is self-motivation! You don’t have to motivate motivated people, and managers need to create a motivating environment free from fear in which that motivation can thrive. One of the four keys for successful execution, which I describe in my new book Execution IS the Strategy, is ENVIRONMENT. Encouraging a culture of risk-taking would go far in engaging employees and driving out that fear.

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