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Mastering the Democratic Leadership Style (How-to Guide)

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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.

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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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