ARE WE READY FOR WORKPLACE DEMOCRACY ?

“It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others that have been tried.” Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965).

Author: Hanhil at nl.wikipedia; PD-AUTEUR; Released into the public domain; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Hanhil at nl.wikipedia; PD-AUTEUR; Released into the public domain; via Wikimedia Commons


I am seeing an increasing amount of discussion about the concept of workplace democracy, and have even most recently come across a company where all staff members were invited to vote “yea or nay” on the appointment of a new CEO, when the current founder and CEO felt that it was time for him to step aside. The outgoing CEO chose his successor, and then asked all staff to vote on whether they agreed with his choice. Luckily they did (although it was not unanimous) which was fortunate, as I feel that this particular partial attempt at the democratic process may have been somewhat short-lived had it been a resounding “nay” vote.

I have also had the privilege in the last year to meet, and hear talks from Heiko Fischer of Resourceful Humans, who believes that the greater the level of democracy and the less management that exists in a company, then the more will people drive themselves and therefore the more they will drive the success of the company. Heiko likes to compare traditional hierarchical management structures to a hamburger where the patty (employees) needs a large bun (management) to hold it together, rather than to what he feels is needed today being more like a burrito which has a thin unobtrusive layer (management) holding all the ingredients (employees) together. As well, a hamburger needs considerable structure within the bun, whereas structure is less important in a burrito. Not a bad analogy if you are a supporter of his premise.

Author: Tebu.an; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Tebu.an; via Wikimedia Commons


I feel that that one of the drivers of this flirtation with workplace democracy is the current belief by some that this is exactly what the new generation wants … that young people today have a significantly different set of work expectations than did my generation, and particularly in terms of company loyalty (now more to a role), flexibility of working times (less based on 4 weeks annual leave and more on long breaks as needed), and significantly less management control (less direction from above and a greater say in what they do and how they do it).

But, are they really demanding democratic-style freedoms, and just how much structure is too much structure ? Are we really ready to do away with traditional management structures and build more democratically based organisations ?

I have long been against over-management (see “Sixth rule of management” posted November 19, 2012) and in particular matrix management, which despite its potential benefits for vocational career development, is mainly the creation of people who know that change is needed, and who have decided that added complexity is the answer. I have always believed that complexity is never the answer, and that when it is, then it must have been a pretty stupid question to start with. Albert Einstein (1879-1955) nailed it when he said “If you can’t explain it to a 6 year old, you don’t understand it yourself. Everything should be as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

via WIkimedia Commons

via WIkimedia Commons


I have no question that the traditional “command and control” management style is totally passé, but I am of the belief that some structure is still needed, not just for the sake of management control, but also more importantly for the benefit of the employees.

When I retired I had a final session with my boss, who asked me for some feedback (the first time that this had happened in nearly 15 years).
Amongst other things, I told him that “he had been a great boss because he had left me entirely alone to do the job in my own way, but that he was also an awful boss because he had left me entirely alone to do the job in my own way.”

It was not that I was a needy person that wanted continuous advice, feedback and recognition, but I disagreed with him that being left totally alone, all of the time, was something that senior people wanted. His belief was that as we had monthly board meetings, this should have been enough to set the context for all of us to act accordingly. The problem was that apart from the one annual 2-day session to discuss strategy, management meetings were nearly always about content rather than context. As a result, cross-divisional alignment tended to be difficult. For example, aligning the field with product development was somewhat hit and miss, and as a result sales incentives tended to suit sales rather than corporate direction; the service organisation, in isolation, hiked maintenance prices by about 30% at one stage and then had to back-pedal after a customer revolt; software development delays impacted the performance of the field organisation as customers delayed orders in anticipation of new products, but didn’t impact the development organisation who worked to their own timetable insulated from the real world, and who kept recruiting during hiring freezes based on their self-appointed immunity from restrictions.

I believe that we cannot expect people to have any ability to define what they will do and to know what is expected of them if we do not clearly articulate the reasons for “why we are here” in the first place, as a company, as a division, as a team, and we do not give then enough direction and understanding to help them to be an integral part of the strategy.

People should definitely be given the ability to define how they will handle the content of the role that has been assigned to them, within guidelines for quality and standards that apply, but I also have a strong belief that this can work only if the context has been well defined beforehand, and that this context must also include the appointment of those who have been asked to lead the organisation.

To leave these corporate decisions to the vagaries of “voters” is likely to lead to a similar situation as Switzerland finds itself in today, where its latest referendum result appears to have been based more on an emotional response to immigration rather than any real understanding of the implications of the referendum result for their country, its prosperity or the ultimate benefit of its citizenry.

Author: User:Marc Mongenet; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: User:Marc Mongenet; via Wikimedia Commons


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5 Responses to ARE WE READY FOR WORKPLACE DEMOCRACY ?

  1. Thierry says:

    Good morning Les, I enjoy your posts but dissagree profoundly with this one “To leave these corporate decisions to the vagaries of “voters” is likely to lead to a similar situation as Switzerland finds itself in today”

    This sounds very much Oligarch like ? Swiss citizens know very well the consequence of there decisions but are ready for the tradeoff i.e. less erosions of there culture through massive immigration in exchange for less monetary benefits.

    This feeling is shared across the country side while urban dwellers who have a different ( more global ? less distinct and possibly less profound ) culture would prefer to have it the other way round. The vote was tight and understand that if your principal concern is solely monetary you will not like the consequence of this referendum but you certainly cannot say that this was an irrational and un educated decision aka “vagaries”.

    Switzerland is fine with its direct representation system, a strong economy and no wars in over 500 years is proof enough.

    • leshayman says:

      Thierry, I wasn’t just referring to financial benefit. My comment was based on the fact that (due to my involvement on 2 boards in Switzerland) I am aware that a great part of Swiss success/lifestyle/economy has been supported by the influx of immigrants. Not just unskilled low cost workers but also highly skilled Europeans from Italy, Germany etc., who have played a significant part in the Swiss “success” story. These people do not threaten the Swiss, and to have a blanket vote against immigration is disadvantageous for the Swiss on so many levels. Les

      • Thierry says:

        I completely agree with this and I think most Swiss will. But my point was that the voting outcome was not due to the “vagaries of voters” but about different perspectives and acceptable tradeoffs from urban and non urban citizens in the country. Some Swiss, mainly in the country side, feel thretened in there cultural integrity, to most of us this may sound absurd but it is the way a majority of Swiss feel.

        If my understanding is correct the root cause is demographics, the fertility rate has been consistently low in Switzerland for quiet some time and we can beging to see clearly that one culture is (slowly) being replaced by others. The concern here is also not so much about western Europeans with which the Swiss have abundant commonalities but about other cultures that share less.

        From this perspective I believe the refrendum vote is a rational choice ( outcomes have been clearly identified ), it may not suit parties all but a majority agrees so my point is why dismiss it as an unreasonable event.

  2. A helpful analysis of how various past problems in workplace democracy have been successfully solved, is at http://www.workdemoc.org

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