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Human beings value freedom, especially the freedom to voice their opinions and have a real say on matters that affect their lives. This is just as true in the workplace as it is in any other part of life. Adopting a democratic leadership style at your company can be a true win-win, empowering employees with the ability to make a real impact while giving leaders the honest input and range of perspectives needed to drive organizational success.
But what does democratic leadership really look like, and how can you start to adopt its principles at your business? Let’s dive in and find out.
What is democratic leadership?
Democratic leadership — sometimes called participative or shared leadership — prioritizes including team members at all levels in decisions both big and small. It involves a combination of delegating authority, operating by consensus rather than fiat, and giving precedence to the voices of employees. By truly listening to — and acting upon — employee feedback, leaders who adopt a democratic style are likely to see greater engagement, innovation, and initiative among team members.
Companies that embrace democratic leadership encourage employee participation in all aspects of the organization. This includes everything from the way a team will tackle the next task at hand to suggestions for the next major product the business will develop. Establishing two-way methods of communication, including anonymous channels like pulse surveys, is a critical part of implementing democratic leadership, as managers will otherwise lack honest employee input. Democratic leaders also delegate authority when possible and allow their teams to operate with relative autonomy, avoiding micromanagement.
Adopting a democratic leadership style at your company takes time, willpower, and the right strategy — one focused on building mutual trust between leaders and employees. If team members see leaders say one thing and do another, or disregard collective feedback, all your organization’s efforts to democratize the workplace will look hollow. HR should first train other people leaders on why building trust is so important. Then those leaders must work to earn employees’ trust every day, actively listening to team members’ concerns, displaying empathy, and striving to create an environment where all team members feel like they belong.
Alternatives to democratic leadership
Democratic leadership isn’t the only game in town, of course. Some leaders choose to centralize authority in their own hands or a small group of subordinates, who make decisions without hearing from other stakeholders. While this approach can lead to greater efficiency when it comes to reaching a decision initially, it can also easily result in ill-informed choices that cause frustration and negatively impact performance at multiple levels.
Another alternative, laissez-faire leadership, largely jettisons the consensus-building process of democratic leadership in favor of empowering individual employees with the ability to make all or most of their own decisions. Some organizations can thrive when adopting this horizontal approach to authority, but many would struggle with a lack of alignment and poor collaboration.
4 characteristics of democratic leadership styles
You now know what democratic leadership means, but what does it actually look like in action? Here are 4 characteristics you’re likely to see among teams with a democratic leadership style.
1. Increased participation
Democratic leadership is defined by group participation and involvement. Leaders encourage input and feedback from team members and seek their opinion and suggestions before making a final decision. They value diversity and inclusiveness, encouraging team members to contribute their unique perspectives and experience and fostering an environment of psychological safety.
Team members who know their role and have the support necessary to excel in it are a major hallmark of democratic workplaces. This support includes the basic requirements, like tools and resources, but also encompasses the equally important coaching, training, and demonstrations of trust needed for a true culture of empowerment.
Democratic leaders consistently practice transparency when communicating, especially during the decision-making process. They share information freely with their team members and provide them with regular updates on new and existing issues and projects.
Organizations with democratic leadership models prioritize flexibility and adaptability. When the unexpected occurs, leaders already have the processes in place to quickly gather input and come up with an effective way to move forward.
The advantages of democratic leadership…
Democratic leadership offers some significant benefits to organizations that implement it effectively. First and perhaps foremost, it gives room for new ideas and alternate approaches to breathe and grow, boosting creativity and innovation. Not only do democratic leaders actively solicit the views and opinions of their team members, they actually listen to and implement them. This allows a diverse range of viewpoints to organically drive decisions, rather than the limited perspective of the person or persons at the top. Processes and choices that otherwise might drag down a team and organization for months or years are more likely to be put aside in favor of options that better suit everyone’s needs.
Democratic leadership is also a great way to foster improved employee engagement. When employees are able to share their true thoughts and insights on a regular basis, and see leaders take action on them, they feel truly valued. Establishing the robust feedback channels that democratic leadership relies on — like AI-powered, always-on chatbots — also provides real-time data on where employee engagement currently stands and what leaders can do to improve it. Adopting an employee engagement platform that includes these tools and the analytic functions to make sense of the input they collect is a foundational part of any effective democratic leadership style.
In addition, democratic leadership has a positive impact on communication and collaboration as well. It relies on two-way communication between leaders and subordinates, where they honestly exchange ideas and gain a better understanding of the best route forward. This free exchange of information supports an open, transparent work environment. It also keeps all team members up-to-date on their co-workers endeavors, allowing them to identify opportunities for collaboration that might otherwise go unnoticed.
…and its risks
Democratic leadership comes with its share of challenges and risks as well. Some employees may lack the knowledge or experience necessary to effectively contribute in certain situations. Critical decisions might take longer to reach as relevant stakeholders gather their thoughts, and certain team members may be unhappy with the result or the process used to reach it. In large organizations, actually giving every team member a seat at the table might not always be feasible, resulting in some employees feeling left out and resentful.
Thankfully, there are ways to address each and every one of these potential pitfalls. If certain employees aren’t qualified to participate in certain cases, either train and mentor them until they are, or ensure that the rationale for their lack of involvement is reasonable and well-communicated. Decision-making can be streamlined by establishing clear processes in advance, and any frustration with choices made can be minimized by making those processes as transparent and equitable as possible. Finally, even the largest organizations can give every team member a voice with today’s mobile-friendly and easy-to-use employee engagement software.
Enable democratic leadership by giving all employees a real voice
The idea of a manager or executive sitting alone in their office, making all the important decisions themselves, and ordering their subordinates to carry out their wishes, belongs to a bygone age. Employees now expect to have a real say in how their teams and companies function, and modern organizations rely on input from all levels to drive innovation and consistent success. Democratic leadership delivers the empowerment team members crave along with the diversity of information companies need to avoid falling behind the competition. And with the right software, boosting employee participation at your company is easier than ever before.
The Achievers Employee Experience Platform is dedicated to supporting the employee voice when it comes to both feedback and recognition. It includes Achievers Listen, a fully-featured employee engagement solution that guides leaders from insight to collaborative action along with their team members. And it boosts employee voice even further with Achievers Recognize, a recognition and reward platform that makes it fun and easy for every team member to show appreciation whenever and wherever the urge strikes them.
Try a free demo of the Achievers Employee Experience Platform and see how it can empower your workforce today.