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!