If you’re a leader or an aspiring leader, you’ve probably looked back on your own past supervisors and managers to understand what made them effective. What did you learn from them about the kind of leadership you want? Who inspired you? Who showed you that your individual work was critical to the success of the team?
Chances are, those great leaders from your past were using a democratic leadership style. Studies show that this leadership style is a favorite among employees, largely because it helps people feel like their contributions are valuable.
But that doesn’t mean that democratic leadership is the best choice in every situation. For example, if you have an inexperienced team or an urgent decision to make, you may need to tweak your approach. The bottom line is that you’re the boss for a reason — and ultimately, you’re still responsible for the final outcome. Let’s talk about how to assess when a democratic style is effective and when you should pivot to another leadership style.
What is a democratic leadership style?
This style invites those at lower hierarchical levels to participate in the decision-making process. The term was coined in 1939, when psychologist Kurt Lewin and his colleagues defined three different leadership styles: autocratic, democratic, and laissez faire — with autocratic on one end of the spectrum, laissez faire on the other, and democratic in the middle.
The word democratic may make you think of a commonly associated phrase: majority rules. But that concept doesn’t quite align with effective democratic leadership. As Philadelphia-based leadership coach Mike Krupit points out, “Nothing done by a majority rules committee comes out well.” A democratic leader is still leading — not simply handing decision-making responsibility off to the group. That means the democratic leader is either making the ultimate decision or guiding the group to do so.
When Krupit coaches clients in leadership, he breaks democratic leadership into two categories: consultative and collaborative.
In a consultative approach, a leader turns to their team for information and suggestions. Then the leader makes the final decision based on the team’s input.
A collaborative leader also seeks input. But rather than making the final decision, the leader then builds unanimity among team members around a particular decision. The benefit of this approach, says Krupit, is that even if not everyone agrees with the final choice, they can still support it because they understand how the decision was made.
Why is democratic leadership important?
The democratic leadership style shows up in studies again and again as a strategy that inspires and motivates employees. This leadership style allows people to experience a sense of control over their own destiny within the organization and to believe their actions impact the company’s greater success.
Democratic leaders encourage relationships among team members, and that means employees feel more connected to each other. These strong professional relationships lead to company cultures that prize active involvement and commitment to shared goals. Employees operating under democratic leaders have higher morale and greater job satisfaction.
For the leader, that translates into increased productivity and less employee turnover. It may not be the appropriate choice in every situation, but democratic leadership is a strategy you should have in your toolbox.
What is an example of the democratic leadership style?
A great democratic leadership example is Jack Dorsey, co-founder and CEO of both Twitter and Square, who’s well-known for this type of leadership. He designs his companies to engender dialogue among colleagues. He’s transparent with employees about management-level decisions, providing opportunities for questions, suggestions, and dissension.
In a Forbes interview, Dorsey noted that he modeled his companies on his experience at his high school newspaper. He sees his own position as the editor-in-chief. “I really like that model at both Twitter and Square because it allows for people with the most information around the company to bubble something up,” he says. “But it also allows the leaders in our company to recognize trends and intersections, and [assign] teams to those intersections … [employees] can actually dramatically change the course of the company by presenting a good idea.”
What are the pros and cons of democratic leadership?
This style of leadership can be highly effective in the right situation. But like every leadership style, it has some drawbacks.
- Creates higher job satisfaction. Employees feel like they’re part of a team that values their input and feel a sense of empowerment to have control over their future.
- Inspires increased innovation. Knowing that their ideas will be actively considered encourages participation and encourages employees to bring new concepts to leadership.
- Engenders a culture of trust. Relationship building is key to democratic leadership, so employees know they and their team members are working toward a shared goal.
- Leads to a slower decision-making process. Soliciting and evaluating a variety of perspectives takes time, especially for complex decisions.
- Can be ineffective with unskilled employees. If employees don’t have the skills or knowledge to provide valuable input, they won’t improve the decision-making process.
- May lead to disappointment when offered ideas are not accepted. Not every idea can be implemented. Some employees may experience a sense of rejection.
When is a democratic leadership style the best approach?
Democratic leaders foster a team environment, celebrate differences in experience and opinion, and recognize that mistakes are a normal part of the process. Here’s where it works best:
When you need everyone to be on board
Tough decisions will be more readily accepted if you can get everyone on the same page first. In the late ’90s, Krupit became the CEO of an e-commerce company right as the dot-com bubble burst. After a period of exponential growth, the company had been acquired and Krupit was tasked with reducing huge losses.
Krupit knew he would have to make significant staffing cuts – hundreds of jobs. “When we executed the downsizing plan,” says Krupit, “people were thankful about how we handled it because we were very consensus-oriented.”
“During a period like that, organizations often end up with a lot of dissension. Even among the leadership team, people will say ‘Hey, I didn’t support the decision but this is the way it is.’ They try to make excuses. But we built consensus, so everyone left taking ownership of the solution.”
When you want to foster innovation
When teams aren’t sharing their ideas and talking about them, they risk getting stuck in one place. The same can happen to leaders.
Employees in the trenches often have a different perspective than management. Encouraging them to take ownership of the organization’s future by listening to and engaging with their ideas breeds creativity.
In a 2017 interview with Fortune magazine, former IBM CEO Ginni Rometty talked about the importance of building a culture where people know they’re expected to weigh in on ideas, even if that means encountering a certain amount of dissent. “As a leader … I do very simple things. I mean, I ask everyone’s opinion when they don’t speak up. And then when they have an opinion, I’ll ask others to talk about it … I think you’re often in environments where people don’t do that … if it’s the norm and it’s expected and everybody has to speak up, you have to have an opinion, and you have to argue. You know, you have to stick up for what you believe in.”
When should you not use the democratic leadership style?
Even democratic leaders don’t lead democratically all the time. This leadership style won’t be your most effective option in these situations:
When time is of the essence
Inviting the participation of multiple stakeholders takes time, especially if you’re trying to lead collaboratively and build consensus.
When you’re dealing with an urgent situation, you may have to jump fast — without input. “At that point, use your gut, your intuition, your experience,” says Krupit. “That’s something you can’t do as a group.”
When your team doesn’t have the skills
If you have a roomful of people who don’t know how to listen to each other and don’t respect differences of opinion, you might have a hard time engaging in a democratic process.
Instead, focus on training and evolving your culture into one that values other perspectives. While you work on that, you can engage in a consultative process by seeking individual input through solo meetings or employee surveys about upcoming decision-making.
When there is no room for error
Imagine a surgeon in the operating theater taking a poll of the residents and then trying to create consensus about how to proceed with open heart surgery. Sometimes an autocratic style is necessary.
That doesn’t mean the team couldn’t later discuss new developments in surgical research and whether to change their methods. But in certain circumstances — particularly in the medical and scientific world — democratic leadership is too risky.
How to use the democratic leadership style at work
If you haven’t been using this leadership style, you may have to do a little background work before you can approach it effectively.
“The source of so much conflict around decision making in an organization is the lack of acceptance that we’ll have different perspectives, beliefs, and personalities,” says Krupit. Before you can have an effective democratic process, you need to look at your culture. Is listening to each other a key value? Do your team members know how to manage conflicts or challenges to their own ideas?
Modeling these values and coaching your employees should be your first step toward a democratic leadership style.
What’s your natural leadership style? Take our quiz to find out.
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