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Democratic leadership in the workplace 9 min read
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Last quarter’s sales were through the roof and the company is looking to thank its employees for their hard work. It’s time to put together a party planning committee.

As manager, you’re in charge of leading this committee. With an autocratic style of leadership, you could demand things be done exactly to your specifications, but committee members may quit or end up resenting the event. If you laid back and operated in a laissez-faire style, everyone could do their own thing. Janet chooses to bring a carrot cake, Sam puts up beach theme decorations, and Mandy curates a playlist filled with synth jams. The result is a mix of decent ideas that don’t work together at all.

However, because you know that the committee you assembled is creative and competent you can utilize the middle road, a democratic style of leadership.

By facilitating the party planning, the checks and balances work themselves out as members discuss the merits of chocolate cake over carrot and each participant feels listened to because they are a participant, not simply a worker bee. This democratic style of leadership brings out the best ideas and ensures all aspects of the plan work in tandem.

While the party planning committee example lacks seriousness, it represents a real problem that many leaders face: How will I lead my team?

Different companies and projects will have different needs and a variety of leadership styles are available to choose from. The tricky part is matching the right leadership style to the right objective and team. But if you can align all three—leadership style, objective, and team—you can unlock a host of positive outcomes.

This premise is supported by business management theory. In the textbook and the classroom, the different styles can be dissected and debated, but in the workplace, they need to be put into action.

With the foundation of leadership style theory in mind, let’s explore how a modern knowledge worker, project manager, or team leader can reach that magical trifecta of right leadership style, right objective, and right team. (And throw the best party!)


What is democratic leadership?

Democratic leadership, which is also called participative leadership, is about distributing power and gaining consensus. The manager leads the team by gathering input, encouraging collaboration, and valuing the expertise of each team member while each team member contributes to the decision-making process.

While most scholars agree democracy as an organized effort of governing occurred in Athens around fifth century B.C.E., the subject of democratic leadership in management didn’t pick up any notable formal descriptions until the scholar, Kurt Lewin, began studying social groups in regard to management in the 1930s and 40s.

Lewin and his colleagues, Ronald Lippitt and Ralph K. White, suggested management styles could be described as either democratic, laissez-faire, or autocratic. They observed that subordinates tended to favor democratic leadership and subsequent research reports it invokes the highest levels of job satisfaction.

Twitter is one of many companies today that has embraced this leadership style, and they are reaping its benefits. Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter and Square, is noted for saying,

“…if I have to make a decision, we have an organizational failure.”

This statement is made in reference to the micro, not macro, and points to the core belief that team members should be responsible parties in the decision-making process. Democratic leaders empower their team to make decisions. They do not micromanage talented workers.

In 2012 Dorsey published an email to his Square employees saying,

“If you believe in something to be correct, focus on showing your work to prove it. Authority derives naturally from merit, not the other way around. We want more passionate debates about bold and crazy ideas rethinking what we’ve taken for granted rather than discussions that end in ‘John wants this, this is how we’re supposed to do it.’”

Implementing this style of leadership is not always simple or comfortable, but it has been proven to motivate employees and guide companies to success.

Democratic Leaders Are Good Listeners

What is expected of a democratic leader?

Going back to our planning party committee, let’s look at how specific characteristics of a democratic leader and how they lead to a better party.

1. They are a good listener

This long-requested and often cliché descriptor loses none of its importance from its frequent mention. Democratic leaders must listen to their team members. Many subpar leaders can hear from their team, collecting opinions like receipts to be thrown away later, but a successful leader will respect and utilize the feedback given from their trusted team members.

At the first party planning committee meeting, you, the democratic leader, will give everyone a chance to talk and take all of their input into consideration. But that won’t be the end of it. Throughout the week or so of planning, you will continue to listen and use this information to make sure everything runs as smooth as possible.

So when Janet says she’s afraid the cake icing will melt if she has to wait at the bus stop, you’ll remember that Sam told you he is driving to the same part of town to purchase the decorations and coordinate their trip together.

2. They Remain Consistently Engaged

While there may seem to be a hint of off-handedness to the democratic leadership style, relying on key employees to make decisions, leaders operating within this style must remain engaged in decision-making. Empowering team members, does not equal checking out of the process.

Before Sam drives to pick up beach decorations, taking Janet along with him, you check in to review the plan. You read Sam’s list:

  • Beach ball lanterns
  • Tiny umbrellas
  • Sunglasses
  • Tiki torches
  • Oil

This all looks great except for one thing: oil. You ask Sam about it and he elaborates that he needs the oil to light the tiki torches. You inform him that there is a strict no-flammable objects rule in the office and to consider a flame-less alternative or substitute some pineapple centerpieces instead.

3. They are fully team-oriented

Becoming a democratic leader requires a mentality shift from, “I want it my way” or “you can have it your way” to “we will find the best way together.”

Mandy has worked hard putting together the perfect playlist of synth jams. It just so happens that Mandy’s taste in music is the opposite of your own and you can’t imagine putting the entire company through hours of this.

As a democratic leader, you don’t want to outright demand a change or pick out the songs yourself. Rather, you can recognize that Mandy was chosen for the job because she has an extensive knowledge of music and work with her to add more variety to the playlist. You suggest more “beachy” tunes to match the decorations and ask for a few options to be sent around to the team for feedback.

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4. They can make the final decision

When all of the debates have been had, when all of the points and counterpoints have been made, a leader will have a decision to make. Without this ability to take in feedback and produce a decisive result, teams will find themselves stuck in a never-ending cycle of discussion.

In the party planning committee, Janet recommended carrot cake because it is healthier than other options. While Mandy was indifferent, Sam argued that a chocolate cake is more universally liked. With the team unable to come to an agreement, they turn to you.

It’s a hard choice, but you’re the leader. What will it be: carrot or chocolate cake?

Pros and Cons of Democratic Leadership

What can democratic leaders expect from their team?

The idea of democratic leadership falls apart quickly if the leader does not trust their team. This trust extends beyond the idea that their team is filled with trustworthy people, rather, it depends on whether or not they believe their team to be experts in their field.

A democratic leader must surround themselves with a team of dependable subject-matter experts. A team of experts, with a leader at the helm, will be able to collaborate effectively, challenge one another, and create the best possible product.

This “team of experts” concept is what allows the company party to go from an uncoordinated mess to themed and well executed celebration. If it wasn’t for Janet’s knowledge of the city’s bakeries, Sam’s eye impeccable party design, and Mandy’s passion for music, all the pieces would be out of sync or you wouldn’t have the pieces at all.

What are the pitfalls of democratic leadership?

Disclaimer, this isn’t for absolutely all scenarios.

Democratic leadership is a form of leadership that is great for collaboration and coming up with new ideas, but it is not known for its speed. Time-sensitive decisions are made more difficult and may result in missed deadlines or missed opportunities.

In addition, as a facilitator, leaders can become overly reliant on their subordinates’ expertise and find themselves lacking in command and knowledge of routine matters.

For example, while you are a great democratic leader for the party planning committee, you may need to be an autocratic leader when it comes to determining the quarter’s bonuses.

Should you be a democratic leader?

It depends. Are you willing to have open and authentic discussions about projects, removed from the hierarchical structure? Have you surrounded yourself with a team of experts whose feedback will be illuminating and engaging, pushing you towards efficiency and more effective ways of working? Are you able to remain team-oriented while ultimately playing the final decision-maker?

A democratic leadership style is not always the most effective strategy in every scenario. But when it is implemented in the right environment, with the right team, democratic leadership can bring the best ideas forward for a team of engaged employees looking to succeed.

In other words, it just might be the best way to improve your numbers this quarter and throw a party to celebrate it after.

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