Democracy in the Workplace Pays Off


By Linda Adams, President of GTI

Even though we live in a democracy, few of us grow up learning how to be democratic in our relationships with other people. Our democracy works well as a political system where we can vote and are free to express our opinions, but when it comes to having democratic relationships with others, that’s an entirely different story.

For the most part, our families, schools and workplaces are more autocratic than democratic; more hierarchical than flat; more “my way or the highway” than “let’s work this out together.”

As a tragic case in point, a New York Times article recently stated:

“Management failure was as important in the destruction of the shuttle Columbia and the loss of its crew as the chunk of foam that knocked a hole in its wing…”
Matthew Wald and John Schwartz, July 11, 2003

Consider the following comment from a former NASA engineer:

“But when I tried to raise my concerns (about safety) with NASA’s new administrator, I received two reprimands for not going through the proper channels which discouraged other people from coming forward with their concerns. When it came to an argument between a middle-ranking engineer and the astronauts and administration, guess who won.”
Don Nelson, 36-year NASA employee
The Observer, February 2, 2003

And this from the author of “The Challenger Launch Decision” about Columbia:

“…somebody up in the hierarchy canceled the request (for better imagery). The request did not go through the proper channels which points to me the significance of rules and hierarchies over deference to technical expertise.”
Diane Vaughan testifying before the Columbia Accident Investigation Board

Granted there were many other variables that contributed to this tragedy, but it seems increasingly clear that the culture of hierarchical decision-making vs. one of participation and collaboration was a significant factor.

To frame the issue of democracy at work in more personal terms, who hasn’t experienced the frustration, constraint, fear, insecurity and deprivation that results from working for an authoritarian organization or boss?

Over the past several years, much research has shown the negative effects of top-down, autocratic leadership on an organization–both in terms of the organization’s climate and its financial success.

When employees don’t participate in decision-making, when there is little or no collaboration, when there is lack of two-way communication, when their ideas and opinions are not valued, here are some of the ways they cope:

  • Their morale suffers
  • They lose motivation; interest
  • They feel stressed
  • Their productivity drops; they do the minimum required
  • They’re absent from work
  • They leave for another job

Stress and related illness, diminished productivity, and turnover are expensive. Such problems aren’t “just emotional.” They’re economic.

The Payoff of Participation

Anyone who has been fortunate enough to work for a democratic organization or leader has probably experienced some of the benefits:

  • Higher motivation
  • Higher self-esteem and self-confidence
  • More initiative
  • More creativity
  • More self-discipline
  • More accountability
  • Higher productivity
  • More internal motivation to reach your full potential
  • Stronger feeling of fate control

Hard evidence shows that democratic or participative management positively affects the workplace climate. People are happier, less stressed, less angry, less resentful when they work in a company where they can openly discuss issues; where their ideas, suggestions and opinions are heard, taken seriously and valued; where they actively participate in solving problems and making decisions that affect them.

A Remedy

In the past few years, some organizations have made concerted efforts to move away from command-and-control leadership toward a democratic style. Problems in the workplace are often far too complex to be solved by a few people at the top.

Many organizational transformation efforts have involved isolated modifications to address a specific problem or achieve a certain goal (e.g., self-directed work teams, “total quality management” and the like). But, both leaders and employees have expressed disenchantment with those types of “employee involvement,” because piecemeal solutions have limited success when an autocratic climate remains largely intact.

Real change that drops to the bottom line will require a lot from organizations–namely, a complete shift to the participative, democratic model. And it’s difficult to change old attitudes and habits. The authoritarian model is ingrained in us and in our institutions.

The good news is, there’s mounting evidence that affirms old behaviors can be unlearned, and that leaders can develop and integrate relationship skills that are essential to making participative leadership work. We can learn how to have democratic relationships in the workplace.

It takes commitment, tools, education, and practice to get there. But some organizations are making the transition.