How You Can You Make Democracy Work – At Work

At the end I share 5 quick things to do to make your workplace more democratic.  But, first, are you sold on it?  And does your organization need it?

Do people still not get the power of a democratic workplace? I arrived early for my speech to a chapter of the National Human Resources Association. The two speakers who preceded me were from Dreamhost, a webhosting company from Orange County. They were there to talk about their “democratic workplace.” They were forceful and a bit patronizing, I thought, as they said things like “if you don’t respect others they won’t respect you, okay?” And “It’s all about relationship.”  They talked up transparency, and genuine input.  And their firm walked the talk. For example, when they sought a new CEO, a committee identified the top prospects and the finalists were interviewed by . . . the entire company (about 100 employees at the time), who then voted in the new CEO. (See their values poster to the left.)

MURALOk, this was pretty radical democracy at work. But I still thought to myself, everyone knows that genuine democracy, exchange, input, fairness, etc. drive engagement, initiative, and collaboration. I didn’t think people needed this hard sell. It seemed self evident.  But, I thought, trust your gut, but verify. So, when it was my turn, I thought I’d take the pulse of the room. I stood at the left front corner of the long stage and said to the 60 HR professionals in attendance, “Let me ask you about your companies. Where would you be on this line. Where I am now is “1,” which means you are the exact opposite of this democratic, inclusive, egalitarian culture.” Then I walked to the right front corner of the stage, “And this would be a “10,” if your company is totally in sync with what these guys have been talking about.  Just call out the numbers all at once.”

The first thing I heard was “1.”  Then “1. 5. 5. 3. 1. 2. 5.”

I was stunned. “No one is higher than a 5?” I asked. “Somewhere between 5 and 7,” someone said. “Nobody higher than a 7?” I asked incredulously.  Nope.  Someone said, “Those guys are from a software company. We’re more old fashioned — banks, manufacturing, you know?”

My question to you:  Is your shop only below 5?  Hit “comment on this article” and leave an anonymous reply.

And if it troubles you that there is so little democracy, and you “run a shop,” take action!  Managers have a huge amount of room – no matter the corporate culture – to create oases of enlightenment.  Quick ideas for change:

(1) Rotate agenda creation and meeting management among members of your team;

(2) Use technology, like Google Spreadsheets (or survey monkey) to get real time feedback, where people can weigh in at once, without feeling like they’re on jump street;

(3) Ask, “What might I be missing that could help our team to work better?”

(4) When you don’t know something say, “I don’t know.”

(5) When you ask for input, yet go in a different direction, thank people and explain why you went in another direction.

Give power away, let them lead, as you

Lead with your best self!

  • What I have seen happening at one large employer in Alpena is the opposite of workplace democracy. An employee kept in the human resources office to answer the HR director’s questions even though he was known to have heart problems and had the symptoms of a heart attack. The questioner refused to let him leave until all questions were answered. He then went to a hospital emergency room and was diagnosed with a heart attack. An employee was fired for making a criticism of the employer’s service quality in a private conversation that happened to be overheard by one of the employer’s executive. Customers are treated as hostile for asking questions about the recommendations and services provided by the facility. Employees feel constantly under a microscope; and all this as recommended by outside consultants. If employees do make suggestions, they are ignored, or replied to in ways that are diversions.
    So often I think of you, Dan, as an idealist given the real world employers I have known.

  • 5 great points Dan but may I add a subversive thought. The problem is the name “Human Resource [HR}”. This could lead to viewing the “workforce” as just another “resource” like a computer, paper for photocopier, a machine “operator” etc. Something to use not enthuse.
    Perhaps rebranding as “People Person” may give HR staff a new view on their work.
    Who knows even the “Boardroom might think people and not just “bottom Line and our bonus!

  • Thomas Jefferson said “All democracies self-destruct.” The Golden Age of Pericles, the first democracy, lasted only 99 years and got its power partly from the principles of democracy but its economic power came mostly from slaves retrieving silver from mines! Oligarchs and sociopaths will always find ways to obtain power from people who’d rather not take responsibility for their own behavior. Jesus wept.

  • 4 – state government. Top down type thinking. They say they want employee engagement. But very little change ever happens.

  • 2 – privately held company. But I must admit that I’m not completely convinced that a democratic company is truly a good thing. I mean, a free-flowing stream of ideas is a good thing, but truly a democratic form of making decisions? There’s reasons why this country isn’t a democracy, but rather a republic. For a democracy to work, whether in political entities or in business, an informed and engaged voter set is required. I don’t want to vote in all company matters because I don’t have the time to be aware of all the issues. I expect a set of specialists to make certain decisions, just like they expect me to make some decisions. So while you mentioned a scale of 1 to 10, I would caution that more democratic (toward the 10) does not necessarily imply better. A balance may be best. The 5’s may have it right.

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