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Small Organizations Big On Democracy

When you think of smaller organizations, particularly startups, the image that pops into your head is probably one of young people in informal set ups, making decisions together. Everybody at the table is equal because every idea counts and the discussion is usually unhindered by agenda. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t any working hierarchy in smaller organizations - there are still the people who founded the company and those who joined the team later on.

However, their hierarchy is more fluid because that’s what works in their fast-moving environment, where ideas need to freeflow and people need to be given the flexibility to deliver results in their own way. Simply put, smaller organizations are inherently democratic, with co-workers feeling safe enough to be honest with each other and with themselves.

Aware But Reluctant

Challenges begin cropping up when these small organizations begin growing in size. When a company that once had just one or two employees expands into having 10-15 employees, there’s a need for management and a change in the leadership style.

The leaders in smaller organizations are often quite aware of how being democratic at work can positively impact performance and employee engagement - they know it works because they’ve seen and heard the success stories.

But not all leaders are made equal and some aren’t very open to a democratic way of running things at work. At the very least, they feel reluctant to be explicit about wanting to work more democratically.

Very often we see that even those leaders who are driven about things like self-management and autonomy at work aren’t exempt from the worry that their team members won’t take up the responsibility of managing themselves.

That’s a two-way street that can be quite interesting to study.

Small Scale Democracy

Very often, startups tend to grow very fast, and the leaders or entrepreneurs, who were on the founding team, find themselves suddenly faced with tasks that are different from what they’re used to doing.

They now need to lead a team and if they’re planning to be democratic about it, they don’t want to be extremely open about it. They fear stressing people out or chasing them away. So, on one end, they strive to put in place democratic principles at work without being open about it, and on the other, they feel frustrated when their team fails to grasp their ideas fast enough.

Apart from their reluctance to be transparent with their coworkers, some leaders also find it difficult to express their vision to others succinctly. In order to open up the communication, a leader should convey to their team that they must feel free to make their own decisions as much as possible.

If a team member feels that the leader is blocking their autonomy then he or she should know it’s safe to bring it up with the leader - which is a great way to open up a feedback loop.

From Leader to Facilitator

But the most important thing that a leader should convey is their readiness to facilitate self-management in anyway possible. Leaders in smaller organizations find it quite tough to play the role of facilitator because until now their job was to establish the business. A change in behavior is needed to move out of that work-oriented mindset into that of a facilitator.

The main purpose of implementing democratic principles at work is to get into a space where adults are treated as adults, making their own decisions just as they do in their personal lives.

The philosophy is that they can make viable decisions in their professional lives too as long as there are leaders who facilitate it. Often, it’s a bigger challenge for the leader to switch into that role than for employees to take responsibility.

Leaders need to be explicit with each person on their team about about roles, responsibilities and expected outcomes.

Not inputs, but the output is what really matters. Getting into a conversation with your team about what they think the output should be and setting a collective target is a great way to foster autonomy.

When people set their own targets it actually makes it easier for them to take ownership and do the job in a way that they think is best. Freedom to decide for themselves can dramatically improve performance and job satisfaction.

And when they do meet those targets, leaders can show appreciation in terms of bonuses, team outings or pay hikes - which further reinforces employee engagement and overall happiness at work.

Old Habits Do Die Hard

Transformation is often a balancing act between the new and the old. Leaders at smaller organizations who are trying to change the work culture often feel uneasy because they still want to see results.

They might be encouraging their coworkers to become more self-managed, but they are also constantly aware that that they don’t yet have the cash flow to afford too many mistakes. And that makes them fall back on old, paternalistic ways of setting goals, telling their team that to get certain freedoms they must reach certain targets.

There is a difference between being in control and being controlling. As an organization you want to be in control so that it doesn’t go under. But leaders exert control over the people in their team, assuming that’s the way to remain in control.

What they should be doing, instead, is to arrive at a mutual understanding with their coworkers about what it takes to have steady cash flow, work or customers to keep the organization alive and thriving.

Leaders should discuss with their teams to come up with actionable ideas that let them collectively have control over the organization. And to do that, they need to leave behind ineffective, time consuming rules and protocols. Instead, they should focus on creating agreements between people about delivering outcomes.

Infusing work cultures with democracy is a long-term investment in the success of your company: By improving how much an employee cares about their job and their organization, it will bring about higher performance, reduced costs and minimized absenteeism.

In short, everything an organization needs to succeed.

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