“A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.” — Martin Luther King, Jr., American religious and civil rights leader.
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.
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% 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. 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 healthcare organization. He was recently charged with creating an entirely new department. “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,” Eaves 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.”
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.