Control Is Just An Illusion - Democracy Is The Real Thing

We live in the age of information and companies, irrespective of their size, are increasingly becoming aware of how workplace democracy can actually be good for business.

Millennials, who are beginning to dominate workforces across the globe, are gravitating towards jobs that offer big money like corporate companies and a democratic setting like startups.

However, the large companies that are trying to embrace democratic principles, aren’t doing so on the whim of their Millennial workforce alone.

The marketplace today is highly fluid, with nimble, tech-savvy customers who won’t think twice before jumping ships.

The Politics Of Working Without Trust

What that means is that businesses need to keep pace with the changes in the marketplace and a command-and-control ideology will no longer hold water.

Employees need to feel like their opinions matter and they need to be onboard with the company’s decisions.

It might take more time and effort to arrive at decisions in which employees have had a say, but it can make their engagement, morale and productivity go through the roof.

While there’s no denying its benefits, the democratic workplace is still a work-in-progress. Although bigger corporations have the cash flow to accommodate the mistakes that come with self-management, they lack trust between employees and the space to experiment with new leadership models.

Compared to smaller companies, where people know each other well, even beyond work, large businesses are full of people who hardly know each other.

Small Steps Towards Democracy

As stated by my colleague Luuk Willems in his article, the uneasiness of working with people you don’t really know well, coupled with the pressure to outperform each other is one of the main reasons why office politics exists.

When people find it hard to trust their coworkers, their energies are consumed in trying to one-up the person across the desk and there’s hardly any productivity left.

To make things tougher, large companies have inherent hierarchies that make one person responsible for not just setting the targets for their team to achieve, but for also making sure they reach those targets come what may. And that’s incredible pressure which can lead to no good.

Fortunately, there are people within such large organizations who really want to shift to a more democratic style of leadership.

However, it’s quite difficult to establish the space and room to really experiment with democratic leadership principles because there will still be other teams in the organization that don’t work this way. If one manager starts working in a different way, then it can set off dynamics that eventually make it harder to work democratically.

Aim Beyond The Temporary

The best way to start in such situations is to take small steps and establish a good understanding with higher management and with the departments you work closely with.

Make it clear to them that you’re going to work this way, treating it as a learning experiment to find a different and more efficient way to get things done.

That said, it’s quite common to see managers experimenting with democratic principles in agile and scrum teams.

These temporary teams are a great place to start, sure. But there’s a catch: Since they are temporary teams, that finish and leave at the end of a project, the experiment is best suited for specific projects only.

On the big picture, democratic leadership, practiced in such temporary teams, doesn’t get ingrained within the company’s philosophy. And that’s the hardest part about infusing democracy into larger organizations: Finding the space within large companies, to go beyond agile and scrum teams and to experiment with real teams that do much of the daily work.

Make Democracy Contagious

However, getting large companies to completely move from conventional management practices to democratic leadership is a long ride.

Not every company can start from scratch and say we’re going to do things differently hereon - Ricardo Semler did it at Semco, but in my experience not many companies dare to or even want to become democratic. Democracy isn’t a goal in its own.

Their fears may be valid, but then again, it’s important to choose democracy if they want their workforce to be invested in their jobs; if they want to bolster innovation and creativity; and if they want their employees to truly care about the company.

It’s best if democracy is introduced in small ways, with leaders finding spaces within the existing framework to safely experiment with democratic leadership principles.

When the results become visible, being democratic will feel contagious.



Allow Employees To Fail Safely

In bigger companies, choosing to lead democratically is never the decision of a single person and that makes it more difficult because there’s less trust and more powerplay at work here.

If a manager does find the space to experiment with this philosophy, he or she needs to build it into spaces where it’s safe to fail. This is important because large companies create difficult consequences for employees who fail and that can be a huge deterrent.

So the contract they draw with their higher management and the departments involved, must take into consideration all stakeholders, the room to experiment and to fail.

Leaders in big companies, experimenting with this new style of leading/ working should expect a few failures on the way - but on the long run, the performance and the commitment of their teams will tangibly improve.

The price of these failures are very small compared to the loss of unnecessary productivity, fun and commitment which is the reality at many hierarchical companies today.

Improve All-Round Efficiency

A well-known Gallup study revealed that nearly 87 percent of employees in most companies feel disengaged with their work.

With democracy, it’s possible to make this huge section of the workforce feel invested again. The two sides - disengaged employees and engaged employees - are incomparable: When companies can manage to make their employees feel like they matter, there’s only one way to go and that’s forward.

When people feel happy about the work they do and when they are happy being at work, then productivity will automatically improve. The number of people staying away from work on sick leave will dramatically reduce because they now feel like they’re part of their company. Increased commitment towards the company can even lead to lowered costs.

When companies give employees the trust and full responsibility over their work, commitment will rise again. In order to do so, organisations need to be  transparent about all important information in order to help employees make informed decisions. When organisations do this, people feel engaged, their work matters and they know why they applied for the job in the first place.  People begin to feel like they’re a part of those results and actively help out in improving those results and even with lowering those costs.

Bane Of The Industrial Revolution

Being democratic at work is the most rational way to organize our companies but we’re so used to managing our companies with traditional hierarchy.

The majority of people find it difficult to let these conventional practices go and embrace alternative leadership styles.

In fact, democracy at the workplace isn’t a new concept to begin with - it’s been around for centuries right here in Holland. In the nation’s golden age, the shipping industry against all odds outperformed the competition (France, Britain, Spain etc.). It was remarkable because many different craftsmen were actively working on making the best ship possible which gave the Dutch a huge advantage at see. In that sense, entire ships were built by self-managing multifunctional teams.

Despite Holland being a small country geographically, in those days, it was the most successful and prosperous nations in the world for about a century because of this advantage at sea.

However, the industrial revolution erased democracy from workplaces and replaced it with the command-and-control structure we steadfastly follow till date.

Democratic Is How We Were And Should Be

In all my experience in trying to spread the Semco Style framework, I’ve never heard a client say, “No, this is crazy and we’re not going to do this!”

But people get cold feet because it’s so different from what they’re used to - like taking control and concentrating power in the hands of a few. This sense of control is illusory. We think people will get committed when we really push hard on achieving numbers and targets.

But that’s no way to reach results. Especially today, when people expect to feel like they’re valued at their workplace, it’s the first step towards attracting and retaining top talent. Productivity and profits will invariably follow.

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