“Error 404 — Democracy Not Found”

Posted by jlubans on October 05, 2015

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Democracy is said to derive from the failure among the gods to resolve the complex issues (all of which end in “cide”, as in patricide) among Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, and Orestes, et al. The gods, throwing up their hands, appointed Athena – reason’s goddess – to come up with a resolution. She appoints a citizen-jury to develop an “arrangement that can set all these contesting demands in some kind of balance that accommodates all sides. In so doing, (Athena) founds democracy.” In Athens, no less.
Which brings us to the “Error 404”. Modern Greeks grimly grin, like tragedians, when asked about democracy in these dark days of loan defaults and peremptory demands from the European Union. Greece is hardly unique in her dismay.
While we may cherish democracy it seems like the world’s 120 or so democracies are always slip-sliding toward the autocrat, the command and control boss, even the despot, elected or self-appointed. Low voter participation contributes. We want democracy but do not seem willing to take the time and effort demanded by real democracy.
Frank M. Bryan*, who researches Vermont’s democratic towns and their annual meetings, defines democracy: “Real democracy occurs only when all eligible citizens of a general purpose government are legislators; that is, called to meet in a deliberative, face-to-face assembly and to bind themselves under laws they fashion themselves.” But, “real does not mean good.”
And that is borne out by our workplace cartoon, with the big-hearted boss giving us permission to make suggestions. At best, our NGO can only be a partial democracy. Although I suspect there are genuine democratic workplaces – with “a deliberative, face-to-face assembly” and everyone having an equal vote and abiding by the outcomes of those votes - but I have not found them. Several come close, but most in my experience, including my own self-managing teams, have been partial.
Still, because of the success of many of these partial democracies - including a few of the ones I worked with - they are worth far more than a passing glance.
Keeping with the Greek motif, it might take a stage comedian, à la Aristophanes, to josh us into understanding what it takes for democracy to work. September’s Southwest airline magazine has an article, “Comedy of Errors”, which lays out the participant’s role in workplace democratic teams.
One of the author’s key points** from her experience as a comedy writer and performer is that you should “Just do it.” No, she’s not shilling for Nike; she explains: Doing it means getting on board and saying “Yes” to the people on your team. “You must show up.” And, you need to come with a good attitude.
Saying Yes to your team – in other words joining in the work of the team – means “respecting the people you are with.” And, listening.
But, just saying yes is not enough; you need to “bring your voice, your point of view and your own unique experience.” If you don’t have one, “shut up and listen until you get one.”
In my experience the best egalitarian teams were made up of people who participated fully – they had ideas or knew a good idea when they heard it. No team member held back information. And everyone was able – as peers “in a deliberative, face-to-face assembly” - to offer up a perspective, to help the group arrive at solutions superior to any autocrat’s idea.
Like the townspeople of Vermont when they pass the town budget and agree to “bind themselves under laws they fashion themselves”, being democratic means knowing the issues, having an informed point of view, being willing to hear contrary ideas and sharing your own ideas. It’s not helpful to be against something without explaining why and offering alternatives. Showing up for the annual town meeting is not enough – even if you have nothing to say, you need to know the issues so that you can cast an informed vote. The same applies to workplace teams as well as my classroom project teams.
Without full participation by all team members the best you’ll get is a lame team. Of course, a team is not a government – that quintessential requirement of all democracies – but a work team can behave like a democracy in letting people have their say and letting them take responsibility for what they say and do. Each team member should be thinking of ways to improve and be willing to share those ideas in order to derive greater value for the organization and its clients.

Leading from the Middle Library of the week: Sonoma County Library, Santa Rosa, CA United States

*Bryan, Frank M. Real Democracy: The New England Town Meeting and How It Works. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2004. 320 pp.

**Katie Rich offers up four other points for effective teams:
“Know your role. See the whole picture. Don’t try to fix everything. Goshdarnit, be good to each other.”

© Copyright John Lubans 2015
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