Workplace Democracy – A Genie in A Bottle

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?



Filed under Building Relationships, Change Management, Leadership Shift, Leading Change, motivating & Inspiring, Uncategorized

11 responses to “Workplace Democracy – A Genie in A Bottle

  1. Thanks for the great blog. You brought up a lot of important questions to consider before transitioning to a democratic workplace.

    At WorldBlu, we offer an annual award for organizations that operate democratically in the private, non-profit, and governmental sectors. Check out our website ( to read about other fantastic democratic organizations and their best practices.

  2. I had a vague understanding of such workplaces, but you’ve described this perfectly.

    Many workplaces may have parts of the formula, but I haven’t had the opportunity to work/coach in any that go this far. I’ll add this to my wish list. Thanks for a great post!

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Mary Jo,

      Thanks for your comments! As mentioned, I have not had any experience with democratic workplaces either.
      I’d be interested in your take on it when you get your opportunity.

  3. Keith Bossey

    Interesting concept and sounds like it could work in a small setting. A hurdle that I see is that there would have to be a very strong sense of corporate strategy, roles, responsibilities and a set of metrics beyond the financials that everyone agreed to. These are issues that bedevil more “command & control” type organizations on a regular basis, so they would probably be a deal breaker for an organization like one you describe.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      You make a good point, Keith. And, frankly I can personally relate to what you are saying because having worked for a large,traditional corporation, I would be looking for some clarity in the areas you suggest too.

      My feeling is that it would be much easier to build a successful democracy in start up company, new culture.

      To turn around some of the big, traditional organizations so that they operate on a democratic basis would be a huge undertaking and one that could be disastrous should it fail.

      It’s simply not a band wagon that any company should jump on before it has thought through all of the implications. There are no “do overs” here.

      I’m thinking that between the “command & control” and the “purely democratic” there must be a middle ground that will work for those who want to attract and retain talented people and maximize on organizational brain power they bring.

      Thanks for coming by and for your thought provoking comments!

  4. Hi Gwyn,

    I’m so glad you’ve shared this useful into to Org Democracy, and I’m glad that someone from WorldBlu saw it, b/c they have been promoting Org Democracy and trying to get into the nitty-gritty of it for a while now, without getting (imho) enough attention.

    I’m personally intrigued by the Org Democracy movement, and see it as one of several programs all pointing towards a different kind of capitalism. Org Democracy efforts are similar to but don’t always embrace feminist management perspectives and what we’ve learned from the diversity/inclusion movement. Still, they all have the same positive intent.

    Org Democracy faces a unique challenge, though, in addition to all the other issues associated with large scale org change.

    That challenge is:

    We think we know how to ‘do’ democracy, and how to make it work, since we (speaking as an American) live in a ‘democracy’. But our working knowledge of democracy is limited, and most of us have only a general understanding of how democracy includes ‘one person, one vote’ and ‘voting’.

    Making things even more complicated is that the democratic systems we’re familiar with (e.g., American politics) are (again, imho) far from perfect. So, what we do know of democracy is limited and maybe in parts wrong.

    The flip side of this is– we presume that ‘democracy’ is (as Martha would say) “a good thing”, so it might be more appealing than other initiatives of employee/member involvement and participation.


    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi CV,

      I’m thinking that the vision of ‘democracy’, is highly interpretive, just as the vision of ‘Employee Engagement’ seems to be.

      As you point out, our knowledge of democracy is limited and in my observation of it (perhaps a cynical one at that), leans more toward knowledge of our ‘rights’ more than our ‘responsibilities’. So I rather think this tends to ‘skew the view’ and add to the challenge as well.

      Thanks for your comment and for adding depth to the conversation!

  5. Thought provoking Gwyn.

    I actually don’t think democracy is an effective model for successful organizations. And it seems to me the principles and practices we currently use to run our democracy in the US are a testament to the flaws in any system designed around voting, debating, etc. to solve the complex problems we face today, and have been more in the way of innovation than at the source of it.

    Dictatorship, aka command and control, worked in the industrial age because the tasks and systems were inherently much more mechanistic in nature. Clearly the environment, the game and the rules have changed – organizations have truly become complex adaptive systems interacting with an environment that is incredibly complex and changing too rapidly for mechanistic models to ultimately be effective.

    On the other hand, underlying spirit of democracy are important ideals such as self determination, freedom, personal ownership and accountability. I think those are the things we are after that ultimately lead to satisfaction and results, as well as bring out the best and brightest in people. So I am not discounting the notion, but rather challenging whether we can use the models we have to invent the pathway to a future that solves the problems we have.

    Perhaps the successful organization of the future needs to be designed not somewhere between the two extremes you point out, between dictatorship and democracy, but by considering an entirely different paradigm for organizing human systems.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      I like that idea a lot.
      What I hear you describe is an extraction of all that is good, (and works), about the systems we know about and building on that to create something else, something that isn’t just a compromise between the two *and* addresses the needs of both the organization and the people who work in it.
      Wouldn’t *that* be something to work on?
      Thanks for your insights Susan. As usual, they are intriguing.

  6. Pingback: Demokracie ve firmě (aktualizováno) |

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