Okay so I’m going where Boomers fear to tread here today. I’m going take a look at workplace democracy. It is a hard place for me to go because I grew up with, and came to understand and accept, a workplace that is best described as a benevolent dictatorship. So the notion of people voting to choose their bosses and selecting their own salaries is frankly not something I’m very comfortable with.
And yet, I have long believed that too much of the population goes to work, and goes home again, having no sense of either purpose or satisfaction. I suspect too, that neither do they make contributions worthy of their capabilities. For people in this situation, it is more about making a living, than living a life, and while that may have been acceptable to some people of my generation, (even grudgingly so), it is probably not enough for the current generation of workers who fully expect to have a voice in matters that affect them.
There are many advantages to democratic workplaces, not the least of which are that they appear to be magnets for skilled, talented and diverse pools of people. According to many experts who wax poetic about employee engagement, democratic workplaces also experience less absenteeism and turnover, two things that are mightily expensive in more traditional workplaces. There is a deeper sense of ownership too, among employees and a greater amount of freedom of expression. Who wouldn’t like that?
But what does a truly democratic workplace look like?
Well, in my meanderings around the topic of workplace democracy I came across a company in Brazil called Semco. This company operates its democracy to the extent that:
- Employees set their own work schedules
- They don’t use the same workstation more than two days in a row so that no one really knows when they go to work or how long they stay.
- Employees supervise themselves
- Each business unit is responsible for its own capital costs and shares in the profits
- Each employee has access to the books which are made easier to understand by presenting the numbers with simple illustrations not dissimilar to a graphic novel (aka a comic book)
- Every six months, employees select their own salary
- Each person in each unit has the power to hire and fire.
- There is a lot of freedom and a lot of pressure to perform
- Employees are assessed and compensated based on what they produce. Period.
There are, no doubt, varying degrees of democracy in companies all over North America. Let’s face it; some will even consider the addition of a suggestion box to be a progressive step toward being able to say they operate on a democratic basis.
The truth is that democracy in the workplace is a complex system however you choose to look at it. To be truly democratic, organizations must consider processes that include voting systems, debates, adversarial processes and systems of appeal. It is not something that leaders can choose lightly. It is a genie in a bottle. Once released, there is no going back.
So, if you are considering a shift toward a democratic workplace, you may need to first check your tolerance level. Here are only a few questions that come to mind for me.
- How much time might you be willing to give to decision making?
Decisions, democratically reached, typically take a lot longer than in other systems. However, the theory is that many companies who take the time to reach decisions through voting and consensus are better positioned to carry out a decision quickly having gained commitment from everyone involved.
- As a leader how prepared might you be to be elected to your role rather than appointed?
In a democratic workplace, some say, that power is more properly distributed if leaders are elected by prospective followers rather than chosen by others.
- How much control do you need? If you have a lot of control now how much are you willing to give up?
In a democratic workplace, ownership for decisions and actions lie with employees. In order to make this work, they must also have a corresponding degree of power and control over what happens in their working environment. It is only then that you can hold them accountable for what they produce.
These are just a few questions that come up for me. What are your thoughts?