Democracy Leaders – Be the Boss Who’s Happy to Listen

Give the Team Their Say, and Lead the Way

Democracy leaders are an idea whose time has come, in today’s challenging business world. It’s about giving team members opportunities to participate in decision making, encouraging discussion and exchanging ideas freely. But you’re still in charge. Democracy leaders also listen to their teams’ thoughts about issues like diversity and wellbeing, and their preferences about flexible working. It all contributes to higher productivity and better staff retention.

In this article we look at what being a democracy leader means in practice. And we consider how it fits alongside concepts like Daniel Goleman’s leadership styles and inspirational leadership. People would rather work for bosses who involve them in company policy and make them feel secure, motivated and fulfilled. So read this, and think about how being a democracy leader can benefit your business!

What is Democracy Leadership – and What Does it Mean for Companies?

Democracy leaders have a democratic leadership style, giving team members the chance to take part in decision-making.  They focus on group equality and openness to thinking differently. The leader is there to offer guidance but retains overall control.

Signs of Democratic Leadership in Action

  • You encourage and reward creativity.
  • Team members feel confident to share ideas.
  • You get better contributions from group members, group morale increases, and the business benefits from higher productivity.

White wooden figures in a line with a red figure slightly forward

Relax, Just Do it

Leaders, managers and investors might worry that this approach means the business’s performance will suffer. But research shows democracy leadership is one of the most effective leadership types there is. Prominent businesses are seeing in their bottom line results the pay-off from adopting this style and getting it right.

Again, leaders and managers used to being authoritative might feel they’re letting things go, by embracing democracy leadership. Take a deep breath and carry on! Democracy leadership boils down to letting the team have more of a say and listening. But they still look to you to lead them. So tell your stakeholders not to be anxious, it works.

Democracy Leaders are More Relevant Than Ever

Sometimes leaders and managers have to make tough decisions, for the future of the business. In today’s 24/7, totally visible environment of news and social media, you have to bring your people with you. In a recent example, P & O sacking 800 shipping staff may have been unavoidable. But to many outsiders, it felt like the corporate equivalent of Will Smith slapping Chris Rock at the Oscars. There might have been good reasons, but it was just wrong.

It’s a fact of life that businesses today are experiencing huge pressures. They must navigate the new reality, and embrace such challenges as sustainability and diversity. And on top of that, they face rising prices across the board and the Ukraine war impacting raw material supplies.

So, leaders and managers may feel totally justified in making tough decisions for the survival of the business. But get the tone wrong and lack compassion, and when the story is out there, people will turn against you. There’s always room for democracy in leadership.

Where Do Democracy Leaders Fit in With the Other Leadership Styles?

Democracy leaders are one of the six leadership styles Daniel Goleman and colleagues identified in the 1990s. They researched nearly 4,000 executives and assessed these leaders’ impact on their corporate climate and bottom line. From there they identified the leadership styles that motivated people and moved businesses forward. This was documented in Goleman and partners’ 2002 US bestseller, ‘Primal Leadership: Realizing the power of emotional intelligence.

Book cover for Primal Leadership book by David Goleman

Here’s a Quick Refresher on Goleman’s Other Leadership Styles:

Affiliative

This style places individuals’ wellbeing above company tasks and goals. You put your people first and show great empathy. True affiliative leadership inspires fierce loyalty. It fosters communication, flexibility and high levels of trust. Motivating your team like this comes naturally to some leaders, particularly in tough times. But beware. You promote harmony and heal rifts, but may have problems improving poor performance. For best results, you need to combine affiliative and authoritative leadership, and also be democratic.

Authoritative

You’re visionary, creative and maybe even charismatic. Visionaries are inspiring to work for. Their positive impact delivers results. And it’s particularly effective when a business is adrift. An authoritative leader charts a new course and sells their people on a long term vision. But on a bad day, they can appear autocratic or overbearing, and un-democratic.

Coaching

This style can be highly effective. Goleman found some specific coaching was often all people needed in terms of time investment. That’s especially true if you know the required results and how to lead your people towards the goal. You focus on their personal development and upgrading their skills. This works well when colleagues know their limitations and are open to change. It’s also good when you need results quickly. But under serious pressure, this approach can seem painfully slow. And it won’t work if employees aren’t open to coaching. Or the leader’s inexperienced.

Coercive

If the business is doing badly, you make and follow through tough decisions. No argument! You kick start change and confront problem employees. But when things calm down, you need to listen more and revert to being more of a democracy leader.

Pacesetting

You set high standards. Pacesetting comes into its own when things are difficult, and can be really effective. But some recipients can find it coercive. Also, as a pacesetting leader, in your drive for results, poor communication can cause problems down the line.  Morale, flexibility and responsibility can all suffer. Again, some democracy would help.

Being a pacesetter or coercive is sometimes necessary to move the business forward. But sustained for long, these styles contribute to a negative company culture. Goleman and colleagues concluded the best leaders don’t know just one leadership style. They’re skilled at several of these we’ve described and flex with the circumstances, making them both situational and democratic.

Inspirational Leadership

Inspire written in brown lettering on gold background

While we’re here, you might also like to check out our article on Inspirational leadership. Granted, this isn’t one of Goleman’s six styles, but like democracy leaders it’s crucial in engaging employees if you’re trying to bring in business transformation and change. Inspirational leadership is important for businesses, because it:

  • Prompts individuals to take the initiative and think independently.
  • Stimulates creativity and emboldens innovation.
  • Unlocks latent potential by tapping into motivation and values.
  • Encourages individuals to follow their passions and explore their ambitions.

Want to know more? Lucy Finney received the MBE for modernising training in the British Army. Her book, Inspirational Leadership: six must-haves to develop inspirational talent within your organisation is available as a PDF.

How to Bring Democracy Leadership to Bear in Your Business Day to Day

Democracy leadership is particularly relevant in such fields as the creative industries, sales and marketing and project management. But you can apply it to other businesses, too.

The characteristics of democracy leadership include:

  • Inviting and supporting group members in sharing ideas and opinions.
  • Encouraging and rewarding creativity and innovation.

By encouraging group members to share their thoughts, democracy leaders can generate better ideas and more creative solutions. Group members feel more engaged in the process. They feel more involved and committed to projects, and are more likely to care about the end results they achieve.

This scenario might sound like something from the advertising world, but applying it needn’t be confined to creative industries. As we said earlier, research on the different leadership styles has shown democratic leadership contributes to higher productivity among group members. This way of leading has also been connected to increases in group morale.

Could YOU be a Democracy Leader?

Man pointing finger at the camera which background blurred

Researchers suggest good democracy leaders possess some specific traits. These include being a team player, willingness to adapt, having a fair mind, and commitment to engaging in the process.

They also need awareness. While democracy leadership is arguably the most effective leadership style, there are some potential downsides to watch out for. You shouldn’t only be self-aware about how you balance being democratic with getting results. You also need to understand the possible consequences of giving the team freedom, when you should be more authoritative.

Let’s Unpack These Consequences:

  • Communication failures: When people’s roles are unclear or time is of the essence, democratic leadership can lead to communication failures and uncompleted projects.
  • Poor decision-making: Team members may not have the necessary knowledge or expertise to make quality contributions to decision making. To involve the team, they must be able to contribute in a meaningful way.
  • Minority opinions overridden: Left to themselves, the dominant team members will hold sway. Some team members may feel their opinions and ideas aren’t being heard.
  • Potential security issues: Being truly democratic involves sharing all the information. This can lead to potential security issues and affect the share price. Going back to the P&O workers, it’s important to manage conflict and boost morale.  But you also need to be careful about revealing sensitive information that shouldn’t be shared on a large scale. This is one reason bosses who are usually democratic don’t always consult the team about decisions.

There are some other disadvantages to democracy leadership you need to be aware of:

  • Collaborative decision-making is time-consuming: When you have to react quickly, it’s not practical.
  • Productivity can temporarily decline when people are waiting for decisions.
  • Democracy leadership doesn’t work well in low skilled, inexperienced teams.

And Finally: This Could Get Traumatic… Hold on Tight to Your Dreams… Build Up Your Democracy Leader Superpowers

Little girl dresses in a pink cape doing a superhero pose

Sometimes people we’ve thought of as democracy leaders surprise us, by not consulting us beforehand about a decision. We feel they’ve let us down, and taken advantage of the fact we like to work for businesses we believe in. That’s especially true when it happens in businesses with a culture that places value on individuals’ contributions. It’s all rosy. But when the company gets sold, it’s time to wake up to reality.

Many successful businesses have grown from operations the founder started as a sole trader. In some cases they evolve into Employee Owned Trusts, with a declared commitment to staff wellbeing. The business consistently achieves excellence, and employees and customers alike believe and trust in them. And then one day it’s revealed that a larger corporate has bought the business, and the leader and founder is exiting. Some employees may gain financially because they own shares, but it can still feel like a betrayal.

Or, the business has carved out a niche against their direct competitor in a tough market. And then one day, the competitor buys it. The announcement says the business will remain a stand-alone brand, under the new owner’s umbrella. It talks of the increases in distribution and sales opportunities that they look forward to.  And the carefully worded copy says the senior leadership team and all staff will transition with the company.  But for some customers, the dream is over.

Hold on Tight to Your Dreams

We need to be realistic and remember leaders may be democratic, but they still have ambitions and personal agendas.

But however much individual business bosses may disillusion us about this, we should look up to people like Bill Gates. He believed in the value of his employees’ input in contributing to Microsoft’s overall success. The democracy leader tag applies to Bill Gates because, reportedly, he wasn’t that creative himself. Instead, he relied on his team’s ideas and advice.

At Apple, Steve Jobs was an authoritative leader, having the design, marketing and visioning skills to drive the business single-handed. His successor Tim Cook is more democratic, realising his limitations, and involving others in decision making and strategy developing. In many companies leaders have been democratic about embracing flexible working and listening to staff’s preferences. These companies report improved staff wellbeing, higher productivity, and increased sales and profitability. In Tim Cook’s case, his willingness to involve others has seen Apple’s market value go beyond $1 trillion.

Three Steps You Can Take to Be a Democracy Leader

Number three gold trophy on a blue surface

  • Hold weekly meetings and listen: Don’t just check on KPI’s or read status reports! Get people to suggest topics so everyone has a chance to bring up what’s important to them. Decide the next step there and then with the team. This way everybody gets an idea of what’s going on. Anyone can stop the chat if they disagree. And they all get a moment to ask questions.
  • Set budgets, targets and goals together: Where possible, have your people suggest their figures and plans to you. Discuss them in full, ensuring every aspect gets talked through. Ask questions and request additional information, rather than judging and dismissing proposals outright. Don’t start off by imposing a goal. Instead, ask what people think it would take to achieve an increase. Listen to everyone’s concerns and issues, and find ways to address them together. Similarly, don’t just impose targets. Explain why they must be like that, and what could happen to you as a business if you don’t reach them.
  • Work on troubleshooting and continuous improvement with your team: Like with the weekly meetings, give everyone a chance to bring up what’s important. And here again, decide on the next step there and then with the team, so everyone is up to date.

There’s no getting around it, leaders and managers face plenty of challenges in their working lives. It’s not easy.  But make being a democracy leader part of your skillset, and you’ll keep your team on your side, and win.

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