The Un-democracy

Posted by jlubans on August 29, 2012


Since I will be teaching teaching about the Democratic Workplace, I ought to have a definition for what that means. I live and vote in a democratic nation – there are some 120 democracies around the globe. As many, some vehemently, will tell you, democracy is imperfect. Of course, when the critics reveal, in moments of candor, what they have in mind for government, democracy is vastly preferable. It is the only model (apart from a Thoreauan anarchy) that promises all individuals freedom, choice and power.
So, democracy, in theory and in practice, appears to be a good model for nations. What about democracy for business?
Most bosses – for-profit and not-for-profit – make it well known to workers “We are not a democracy!” The boss may be of a participatory bent and good at listening and all that, but she is not about to surrender her legal authority and responsibility (and explicit expectation) to give a thumbs up or down on what happens in the business.
And, there’s many a boss – in both sectors – who believes that without his steady guiding hand, his unique vision, his je ne sais quoi as it were, the business would falter and fail. Perhaps.
If you’ve read this far, you may be itching to ask me, “What do you mean by the democratic workplace?” Fair enough.
Another question. “Is it even possible to have a democratic workplace?” We have democratic governments, but government offices (bureaucracies) are anything but democratic.
Maybe I should first list out some of the qualities that make for an un-democratic workplace. A negative approach is not my preferred way to consider a topic but when I (or you) “flip” the negatives, we’ll have a good start on what the democratic workplace looks like.
One dominant leader.
Centralized power.
Workers are “told”; little, if any, choice.
Closed “books” (finances and personnel).
Little worker participation, in any influential way, in planning.
Hierarchy rules, with layers of supervisors responsible for workers.
Communication follows the hierarchy.
Extensive “grape vine” communication among workers.
Many “pragmatist” – survivor – followers.
Managers supervise more than do “real work” .
Administrators make decisions.
A pronounced fastidiousness about policies and procedures.
Formal (and elaborate) performance appraisal.
Individual perks, from parking to pay, align with the hierarchy.
A reactive, not proactive, organization.

SOON: The “flip” side.
Note: Of course, Leading from the Middle offers up numerous concepts about democratic principles. The chapters on Southwest Airlines and the conductor-less Orpheus Chamber Orchestra are especially relevant. My personal experience with the democratic workplace appears in Chapter 4: “Letting Go: A Reflection on Teams That Were”.

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