“Democracy he has to learn.”

Posted by jlubans on May 06, 2014

What is the best way to lead and organize the workplace?
Seventy-five years ago, the distinguished researcher Kurt Lewin (1890-1947) responded with some preliminary answers to this fundamental question. Working at the University of Iowa, he and his research group filmed how several young boys groups interacted with three types of leaders: democratic, autocratic and laissez-faire. The film’s “production values” are woeful but the lessons are profound.
The clubs had names like “Dick Tracy” and “Secret Agents No.52” and were composed of a half dozen or more, 10 or 11-year-old boys each. They met 1 hour per week with an adult leader.
Each club was exposed to three types of leaders and the researchers noted the effects of each type of adult leader on each group.

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Caption: Screen capture, the democratic leader (center) leading a vote.
The democratic model featured group planning with adult cooperation. As explained in the film, children were free to choose with whom to work and what to do. Planning was done cooperatively with majority decision. (In the film, the boy working on the left was asked to take part in the vote.)

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Caption: The autocratic leader directing.

The autocratic leader dominated the group. He decided what to do and when to do it. There was no long range planning; rather, the boys were instructed step by step in each activity in a “friendly, but determined manner.”
The laissez-faire adult leader allowed the boys individualistic behavior with minimal adult participation.

Here are some of the results:

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Caption: Individual differences (horseplay or individual expression) were pronounced in democracy and negligible under autocracy. Lewin and his researchers conclude something all of us have observed in rigid hierarchies or totalitarian regimes: “Autocracy kills individuality.”

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Caption: Time on work
This screen "grab" displays the time the boys spent working with the leader present (in) and with the leader absent (out). The most time spent on task was (as expected) under the autocratic model when the leader was directing the work. However, as we would expect, when the boss leaves, goofing-off begins - far more than what happens when the democrat leaves the room. It should be noted that when the autocratic leader supervises, “the work proceeds as intensely as in the democratic. But, the product frequently shows a poorer quality.” The lower quality of what is produced and that the work disintegrates when the boss leaves, suggest that the democratic way may well be more productive. As Reid* summed it up, “there was more originality, group-mindedness and friendliness in democratic groups. In contrast, there was more aggression, hostility, scapegoating and discontent in laissez-faire and autocratic groups.”
Why then are there not more democratic work places? Well, Lewin suggests that hierarchy takes less time: “Autocracy is imposed upon the individual. Democracy he has to learn.” Perhaps it is as simple as that, in the short term imposing autocracy is easier and more cost effective than asking workers to learn democratic ways. When I led an initiative for self-managing teams, we confronted a steep learning curve. Several of the teams thrived but some never made it up the curve; they were pseudo-teams, pretending to be independent and productive when in fact nothing changed. Becoming proficient with democratic ways takes work; and, the learning, Lewin claimed would only come through “a process of voluntary and responsible participation.” Voluntary implies a desire for the democratic. Lacking that desire, we choose the usual arrangement, however inferior.

* Reid, K. E. (1981) From Character Building to Social Treatment. The history of the use of groups in social work, Westpoint, Conn.: Greenwood Press. P.115.

Of Note:
The fifth edition (2013) of the management classic, Reframing organizations…. by Lee G. Bolman & Terrence E. Deal cites my 2001 basketball team research study, now revised and updated as Chapter 8: “More Than a Game: A Season with a Women’s Basketball Team” in Leading from the Middle.

50% Off Sale: Now’s the time to order your copy of Leading from the Middle!

@Copyright John Lubans 2014
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