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Published on March 30, 2020

Mastering the Democratic Leadership Style (How-to Guide)

Mastering the Democratic Leadership Style (How-to Guide)

A common myth of leadership is that the company executive is the most important person in an organization. Perhaps you can understand why this myth exists. The CEO is paid the most, has superb benefits, and receives the lion share of praise (at least when things are going well). The CEO is also the most visible person in many organizations.

While the leader may be the most visible, the most important people are often behind the scenes. We benefit from their work even if we cannot see their hands working. We enjoy the fruits of their labor, even if we never know their names. Good leaders know that their secret sauce is not only in their unique skillset, but in the people they have around them.

Leaders who appreciate the contributions of others and believe that those contributions greatly benefit the company are more likely to embrace a democratic leadership style.

What is Democratic Leadership?

The democratic leadership style is one that values participation and inclusion of all team members. Rather than allowing a select group of people, or the CEO, to make all decisions, the democratic leader creates systems and processes to solicit and implement input from others. While the leader retains final decision-making authority, the individual prioritizes inviting and receiving team members’ perspectives.

In a 2016 article, Tamara Lytle notes why it is so crucial to solicit input from one’s team:

“Effective leaders pay close attention to what workers have to say and then act on the feedback, according to the 2016 Trends in Global Employee Engagement report from Aon. That’s one of the reasons annual employee surveys are being increasingly replaced or augmented by quarterly or monthly pulse surveys and performance conversations are occurring more frequently. Not only does a comprehensive approach to listening help an organization pinpoint and quickly address problems, it makes people feel valued.”[1]

Leaders committed to the democratic leadership style understand that their organizations rise and fall with the people they have around them. And the best way to encourage employees to give their all is to listen to them and make space for their contributions. Leaders who embrace the democratic leadership style understand that they need not be the smartest person in the organization, the smartest person at all times, or the person with all the answers.

A part of their job is having the discernment to hire great people and the wisdom to create the conditions for those people to thrive. Part of creating the conditions for success includes creating checkpoints to gather team members’ perspectives. This is best done via the democratic leadership style.

The Benefits of Democratic Leadership

In organizations where the democratic leadership style is used, employees are more productive, have higher morale and report higher levels of engagement. This is to be expected because all of us react positively when our opinions are welcome and when we have an opportunity to make our voices heard. If we feel our input is unwanted, we shut down.

Employees will eventually stop sharing feedback if they believe their feedback isn’t wanted or won’t be acted upon. In fact, one key to employee ownership in decisions and outcomes is first making space to consult employees.[2]

Common Challenges of Using Democratic Leadership

Given the benefits of this style, one may rightly question what keeps leaders and teams from using it. What holds companies back from adopting the democratic leadership style? I believe three factors get in the way of the democratic leadership style.

Ego

The democratic leadership style is about shared power and individual agency. Everyone, regardless of title or tenure, has an opportunity to contribute to organizational decisions in workplaces where leaders use the democratic leadership style.

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For leaders who believe that they must be at the center, controlling the outcomes of decisions big and small, the democratic leadership style conflicts with their ego. Their ego conveys an overinflated sense of importance, and that sense of importance causes them to undervalue the contributions of others.

If leaders do not identify and check their ego when it shows up, the democratic leadership style can never thrive. If leaders feel that they are diminished when others shine, they will not invest in this crucial leadership style.

Crisis Management Mode

I won’t say all bets are off during a crisis, but it is not always possible to operate one’s usual playbook during times of crisis. A crisis is anything that takes one off purpose and off message. The leadership styles appropriate during a crisis may be the autocratic style, where teams benefit from receiving clear direction and directives.

The autocratic leadership style is effective when leaders do not have the luxury of polling everyone in every department before acting. In a crisis, when time is of the essence and team members expect guidance from their supervisor, the democratic leadership style may not work. Also, when organizations move from one crisis to another, either from a lack of strategic planning or out of sheer necessity, leaders may skip gathering feedback from their colleagues and team members.

Failure to Plan

If leaders want to use the democratic leadership style, they must plan for it by building in time to include the perspective of others. That means that the timeline for innovating, launching new products, and evaluating product performance must include time for input.

Regardless of how pressed for time an entity may be, leaders cannot forsake the step of gathering input on the campaign’s direction, impact, and post-launch. When projects are fast-tracked, employee input is sacrificed. But the democratic style cannot happen without time and planning.

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How to Implement Democratic Leadership

There are two main factors that go into a democratic leadership style. These will help you begin to implement it in your own workplace.

Place Value on Participation

Considered one of the most effective leadership styles, the democratic leadership style is an approach that shuns top-down directions in favor of information that flows vertically and horizontally. Far from an executive who doles out orders for others to follow, democratic leadership values participation and involvement from all persons on the team. One’s title doesn’t need to be a deterrent, because people at all levels of the organizational hierarchy have an opportunity to share input.

Allow Input from Everyone

The democratic leadership style could look like consulting team members before making a crucial hire and allowing staff to give input on areas within their scope of work and outside of it. Input isn’t reserved for people with the fanciest titles. It’s wanted from everyone.

4 Essential Qualities of Democratic Leaders

While we now understand what inhibits the democratic leadership style, it is worth exploring the qualities of democratic leaders.

1. Confidence

Democratic leaders are individuals with the capacity to share power. They are confident in their abilities, and that confidence keeps them from feeling diminished when other people excel.

2. Curiosity

Democratic leaders are curious by nature. When things don’t go as expected, their knee-jerk reaction is curiosity not judgment. They are genuinely interested in the why behind failure, rather than the who. Their curiosity inspires them to solicit input from others.

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3. Ability to Delegate

In addition to being curious, democratic leaders delegate. If there are 10 things on their to-do list, they find a way to outsource seven of those things. They understand that delegating is a way to provide leadership opportunities for others while enabling themselves to focus on other matters.

4. Being Intentional

Finally, democratic leaders are intentional. They make an intentional practice of listening to everyone, regardless of title. They are as intentional about acquiring the perspective of others as they are about any other leadership priority. The people around them see and feel this intentionality.

Final Thoughts

Democratic leadership is a strong tool that can be weilded in order to improve team motivation, employee job satisfaction, and company production. When input is given from everyone on a team, trust and productivity both grow.

More Tips on Leadership

Featured photo credit: Dylan Gillis via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Society for Human Resources Management: 7 Tips to Increase Employee Engagement without Spending a Dime
[2] International Journal of Development Strategies in Humanities, Management and Social Sciences: Democratic Leadership Style and Organizational Performance: An Appraisal

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Jennifer R. Farmer

An author and trainer specializes in helping socially-conscious entrepreneurs, celebrities and activists

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Last Updated on June 3, 2020

How to Give Constructive Feedback in the Workplace

How to Give Constructive Feedback in the Workplace

We all crave constructive feedback. We want to know not just what we’re doing well but also what we could be doing better.

However, giving and getting constructive feedback isn’t just some feel-good exercise. In the workplace, it’s part and parcel of how companies grow.

Let’s take a closer look.

Why Constructive Feedback Is Critical

A culture of feedback benefits individuals on a team and the team itself. Constructive feedback has the following effects:

Builds Workers’ Skills

Think about the last time you made a mistake. Did you come away from it feeling attacked—a key marker of destructive feedback—or did you feel like you learned something new?

Every time a team member learns something, they become more valuable to the business. The range of tasks they can tackle increases. Over time, they make fewer mistakes, require less supervision, and become more willing to ask for help.

Boosts Employee Loyalty

Constructive feedback is a two-way street. Employees want to receive it, but they also want the feedback they give to be taken seriously.

If employees see their constructive feedback ignored, they may take it to mean they aren’t a valued part of the team. Nine in ten employees say they’d be more likely to stick with a company that takes and acts on their feedback.[1]

Strengthens Team Bonds

Without trust, teams cannot function. Constructive feedback builds trust because it shows that the giver of the feedback cares about the success of the recipient.

However, for constructive feedback to work its magic, both sides have to assume good intentions. Those giving the feedback must genuinely want to help, and those getting it has to assume that the goal is to build them up rather than to tear them down.

Promotes Mentorship

There’s nothing wrong with a single round of constructive feedback. But when it really makes a difference is when it’s repeated—continuous, constructive feedback is the bread and butter of mentorship.

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Be the change you want to see on your team. Give constructive feedback often and authentically, and others will naturally start to see you as a mentor.

Clearly, constructive feedback is something most teams could use more of. But how do you actually give it?

How to Give Constructive Feedback

Giving constructive feedback is tricky. Get it wrong, and your message might fall on deaf ears. Get it really wrong, and you could sow distrust or create tension across the entire team.

Here are ways to give constructive feedback properly:

1. Listen First

Often, what you perceive as a mistake is a decision someone made for a good reason. Listening is the key to effective communication.

Seek to understand: how did the other person arrive at her choice or action?

You could say:

  • “Help me understand your thought process.”
  • “What led you to take that step?”
  • “What’s your perspective?”

2. Lead With a Compliment

In school, you might have heard it called the “sandwich method”: Before (and ideally, after) giving difficult feedback, share a compliment. That signals to the recipient that you value their work.

You could say:

  • “Great design. Can we see it with a different font?”
  • “Good thinking. What if we tried this?”

3. Address the Wider Team

Sometimes, constructive feedback is best given indirectly. If your comment could benefit others on the team, or if the person whom you’re really speaking to might take it the wrong way, try communicating your feedback in a group setting.

You could say:

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  • “Let’s think through this together.”
  • “I want everyone to see . . .”

4. Ask How You Can Help

When you’re on a team, you’re all in it together. When a mistake happens, you have to realize that everyone—not just the person who made it—has a role in fixing it. Give constructive feedback in a way that recognizes this dynamic.

You could say:

  • “What can I do to support you?”
  • “How can I make your life easier?
  • “Is there something I could do better?”

5. Give Examples

To be useful, constructive feedback needs to be concrete. Illustrate your advice by pointing to an ideal.

What should the end result look like? Who has the process down pat?

You could say:

  • “I wanted to show you . . .”
  • “This is what I’d like yours to look like.”
  • “This is a perfect example.”
  • “My ideal is . . .”

6. Be Empathetic

Even when there’s trust in a team, mistakes can be embarrassing. Lessons can be hard to swallow. Constructive feedback is more likely to be taken to heart when it’s accompanied by empathy.

You could say:

  • “I know it’s hard to hear.”
  • “I understand.”
  • “I’m sorry.”

7. Smile

Management consultancies like Credera teach that communication is a combination of the content, delivery, and presentation.[2] When giving constructive feedback, make sure your body language is as positive as your message. Your smile is one of your best tools for getting constructive feedback to connect.

8. Be Grateful

When you’re frustrated about a mistake, it can be tough to see the silver lining. But you don’t have to look that hard. Every constructive feedback session is a chance for the team to get better and grow closer.

You could say:

  • “I’m glad you brought this up.”
  • “We all learned an important lesson.”
  • “I love improving as a team.”

9. Avoid Accusations

Giving tough feedback without losing your cool is one of the toughest parts of working with others. Great leaders and project managers get upset at the mistake, not the person who made it.[3]

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You could say:

  • “We all make mistakes.”
  • “I know you did your best.”
  • “I don’t hold it against you.”

10. Take Responsibility

More often than not, mistakes are made because of miscommunications Recognize your own role in them.

Could you have been clearer in your directions? Did you set the other person up for success?

You could say:

  • “I should have . . .”
  • “Next time, I’ll . . .”

11. Time it Right

Constructive feedback shouldn’t catch people off guard. Don’t give it while everyone is packing up to leave work. Don’t interrupt a good lunch conversation.

If in doubt, ask the person to whom you’re giving feedback to schedule the session themselves. Encourage them to choose a time when they’ll be able to focus on the conversation rather than their next task.

12. Use Their Name

When you hear your name, your ears naturally perk up. Use that when giving constructive feedback. Just remember that constructive feedback should be personalized, not personal.

You could say:

  • “Bob, I wanted to chat through . . .”
  • “Does that make sense, Jesse?”

13. Suggest, Don’t Order

When you give constructive feedback, it’s important not to be adversarial. The very act of giving feedback recognizes that the person who made the mistake had a choice—and when the situation comes up again, they’ll be able to choose differently.

You could say:

  • “Next time, I suggest . . .”
  • “Try it this way.”
  • “Are you on board with that?”

14. Be Brief

Even when given empathetically, constructive feedback can be uncomfortable to receive. Get your message across, make sure there are no hard feelings, and move on.

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One exception? If the feedback isn’t understood, make clear that you have plenty of time for questions. Rushing through what’s clearly an open conversation is disrespectful and discouraging.

15. Follow Up

Not all lessons are learned immediately. After giving a member of your team constructive feedback, follow it up with an email. Make sure you’re just as respectful and helpful in your written feedback as you are on your verbal communication.

You could say:

  • “I wanted to recap . . .”
  • “Thanks for chatting with me about . . .”
  • “Did that make sense?”

16. Expect Improvement

Although you should always deliver constructive feedback in a supportive manner, you should also expect to see it implemented. If it’s a long-term issue, set milestones.

By what date would you like to see what sort of improvement? How will you measure that improvement?

You could say:

  • “I’d like to see you . . .”
  • “Let’s check back in after . . .”
  • “I’m expecting you to . . .”
  • “Let’s make a dent in that by . . .”

17. Give Second Chances

Giving feedback, no matter how constructive, is a waste of time if you don’t provide an opportunity to implement it. Don’t set up a “gotcha” moment, but do tap the recipient of your feedback next time a similar task comes up.

You could say:

  • “I know you’ll rock it next time.”
  • “I’d love to see you try again.”
  • “Let’s give it another go.”

Final Thoughts

Constructive feedback is not an easy nut to crack. If you don’t give it well, then maybe it’s time to get some. Never be afraid to ask.

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Featured photo credit: Christina @ wocintechchat.com via unsplash.com

Reference

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