Workplace Democracy in Action

By Linda Adams, President of GTI

What can your organization expect to gain from incorporating and practicing democratic principles and actions in the workplace?

An engineer who had recently participated in Leader Effectiveness Training (a people skills workshop) was asked to fly to a construction site to help solve a health and safety problem. The site–the largest dam in the world–was experiencing far too many costly, dangerous accidents. A few years earlier, disaffected workers had done millions of dollars of damage to the facility.

The morning of the engineer’s arrival, workers were directed not to report to their normal workstations, but sent instead to the cafeteria for a meeting with him. There were approximately 80 workers assembled in the cafeteria when the engineer arrived, and tension was high. He recognized that the situation was a potentially explosive one.

The message from the workers was clear: “You’re just an engineer flown in from headquarters. How can you expect to help us? You don’t know what it’s like here.”

The engineer, fresh out of training, recognized an opportunity and scrapped his initial presentation plans. Instead, he engaged with workers through Active Listening, and for the next two hours, he invited workers to express their concerns and feelings as he listened–without defensiveness or resistance, but instead with empathy and understanding.

Although the workers had been defensive–even hostile–at the start of the meeting, their resistance eventually subsided. After lunch, when the meeting resumed, the engineer continued to listen and make sure that he understood their concerns, and little by little, the workers began to feel they could be a part of the solution. The engineer then guided the workers through the problem-solving process he had learned. The long-term outcome: decreased conflicts between coworkers, fewer hours of work lost, and a decrease in the number of injuries.

Some Hard Evidence

When there is a two-way flow of communication in the workplace, employees express their opinions and suggestions. They feel safe bringing facts–even negative ones–to management’s attention. Strong leaders don’t dictate; they spend time getting employees’ ideas, listening to their concerns, and letting them have a say in decisions that affect them.

You might be thinking, “That’s all well and good, but I don’t have time to sit and listen and attend long meetings.”

Would you feel differently if you were convinced that good communication and problem-solving skills can make your company more profitable?

A growing body of research shows that companies with participative management are more financially successful than those with autocratic styles. More and better ideas, free flow of information, improved decisions, higher productivity, higher morale, less absenteeism, lower turnover–all have a positive impact on the bottom line.

A ten-year study of 30 companies revealed that organizations that consistently practice good people management create an environment that reduces–even eliminates–significant workplace stressors. In addition, these companies have higher sales, profit growth and margins than other companies. (Kravetz, 1996)

Companies that institute and support employee involvement and that share information freely perform significantly better than companies that are run autocratically. (Lewin, 1988)

Giving employees the opportunity to participate fully is associated with decreased turnover, increased productivity, and improved financial results. (Huselid and Becker, 1995)

When participative management was instituted in one company, the lost-time accidents declined by 50%, formal grievances were reduced from an average of 15 to three per year, and the plant exceeded productivity goals by $250,000 . (Pesuric and Byham, 1996)

Compare the Costs

Of course, there are costs associated with instituting democratic practices and skills in the workplace. Leaders (and ideally all employees) need to learn how to practice democracy. This means they need to know how to listen effectively, how to express their needs without blame, and how to solve problems and conflicts with mutually agreed-on solutions.

And no question about it, practicing democracy takes time.

But consider all the costs that we now accept as costs of doing business–paying for time when employees aren’t productive, i.e. either out sick or not working to full capacity; dealing with grievances; enforcing compliance with unilateral decisions; continually hiring and training new employees, and the like.

Which would you rather pay for?