An overview of democratic leadership
Over 90% of the organizations struggle to convince their people to adopt new strategic initiatives.
The traditional way of creating a strategic plan and then announcing it to the organization’s employees just doesn’t work anymore.
Management needs to take more bottom-up initiatives and consider a more democratic leadership style if it wants its strategy to gain some traction.
Including people in the strategy discussions goes a long way to grounding your strategy in reality and having your people adopt it.
What is democratic leadership?
Democratic leadership is the leadership style that invites more people to participate in the decision-making process than just the leaders. That’s why it’s also called “participative leadership.”
Organizations that adopt it have very advanced internal communication processes. However, it’s still a leadership style with an active hierarchy.
Autocratic vs democratic leadership
These two leadership styles have many inherent differences manifesting in various ways inside the organization. Here are the three categories that their most important differences reveal themselves:
- The communication processes
- The organizational structure and internal team dynamics
- The culture
Democratic leadership demonstrates increased efficiency in internal communication. Unlike autocratic styles where informational channels display intense friction in moving, sorting and searching for information, democratic ones create highways of informational flow that encourage sharing.
It’s impossible to make informed decisions in democratic styles if the information isn’t shared freely inside the organization. On the other hand, autocratic leadership focuses on converging most of the information to a few key decision-makers inside the organization.
Democratic leadership demonstrates fluidity in structure and team dynamics. Organizations that adopt a more democratic leadership style have less vertical hierarchical levels and they tend to spread responsibilities horizontally.
InvolvIng more people in the decision-making process requires a delegation not only of tasks and activities but of authority as well. That is not the case with autocratic leaders who tend to accumulate responsibilities and hold the majority of their team’s authority when making decisions.
These leaders delegate activities, but in the organization’s eyes, they are solely accountable for their team’s success.
Democratic leadership develops a growth culture. Where the focus is on execution. This is represented in the way the organization treats mistakes and obstacles. For democratic leaders, mistakes are lessons, not failures.
They tend to create an environment where people feel safe to express their ideas and concerns. This encourages experimentation and favors innovation. Autocratic leadership focuses on comprehensive planning and avoiding mistakes.
Adhering to processes and rules is highly valued and execution closely follows the initial plan.
No style is better than the other.
Each one has its appropriate use case. In terms of popularity, though, strict, top-down leadership styles have reigned supreme until recently, being the go-to style to govern an organization. However, more bottom-up initiatives and horizontal leadership styles are popularized among certain industries.
The truth is all organizations should experiment with initiatives that lean towards either side of the spectrum.
What are the characteristics of democratic leadership?
This leadership style has three defining characteristics.
Free informational flow
A team makes informed decisions when the right information reaches the right person at the right time.
In participative leadership, that means sharing information with everyone inside the team. This requires channels where informational flow is rapid and multi-directional.
The team can’t make a collective decision if every person holds only certain pieces of the puzzle. Thus, installing efficient communication channels becomes a priority.
For example, you might adopt the daily habit of sharing findings or weekly updates through structured team meetings.
The goal is to have dedicated channels to certain information to avoid cluttering and overloading. Automate reporting in weekly or monthly updates with KPIs templates.
This is the key characteristic that makes democratic leadership so effective.
In an autocracy, employees are encouraged to share information upwards and wait for the stamp of approval to act on it. Democratic leadership reverses this model. Leaders delegate authority to their people and encourage them to make decisions within defined limits.
Instead of waiting for approval, the individual is expected to make responsible choices and is reviewed based on their decision-making abilities as well as their choices’ results.
When leadership communicates clearly that it trusts its people to make the right decision, people feel very empowered.
Communicating more than just the strategy’s content
Leadership communicates the context as well.
People don’t get only the conclusions of the strategy discussions but also a deeper understanding of the journey that took them there. They feel included and gain a sense of ownership. As a result, strategy gains more traction when implemented.
Tools like slides and sheets are unable to provide that context. Use a digital strategy execution platform like Cascade to expose your plan to your people.
When is democratic leadership effective?
Below are the three major indicators that your organization needs a democratic leadership style.
When innovation and creativity are priorities
Creativity requires a certain degree of freedom.
In industries where innovative new ideas are essential to a company’s bottom line, strict structure and lack of empowerment hinder creativity. Take Pixar, for example.
The company wouldn’t be able to constantly innovate with every new movie if all of the creative decisions were taken by only a few people. On the contrary, every movie is the product of collaborative innovation between both the creative team and the technology one.
When speed is more important than “getting it right”
Great execution rarely is the product of a perfect plan.
It always stems from experimentation. If there are too many uncertain conditions in the market, spending more time planning is never the answer.
The answer is swift execution. Going out there and testing ideas. Instead of trying to piece together a perfect plan, you discover the best path by trial and error.
Startups know this. That’s why they move so fast and try so many different ideas. There is no value in spending too much time planning and looking for the right answer. Startups simply lack the resources to stay still.
Large corporations, on the other hand, have the luxury of standing still and observing the market. But - and this is a huge “but” - they tend to grow complacent, believing they’re too big and too successful to fail. So they resist internal change.
Instead of instilling a higher degree of freedom inside their organizations, they remain rigid and unable to react to market disruptions.
Democratic leadership takes feedback from the front line and corrects course at lightspeed.
When process optimization is a priority
There comes a time in every organization’s life when improving current processes yields higher returns than introducing new policies.
At this point, front-line employees are encouraged to utilize their expertise, bring their ideas forth and incrementally improve production. Democratic leadership takes advantage of its people’s expertise and improves efficiency.
Although continuous process improvement is in every company’s plan, autocracy is much more resistant to change and takes much more time to apply incremental improvements.
For example, democratic leadership in nursing benefits departments like quality assurance, where people spot weaknesses in the front line and raise their concerns.
However, there is the danger here of spreading too thin. If every request from the bottom is granted and the focus is to optimize processes individually for every team and department, the company stops operating as a unit.
It maximizes the efficiency of its parts separately instead of treating them as moving parts of a bigger machine.
Thus, confining its potential and giving up on acquiring a significant competitive advantage.
When is democratic leadership ineffective?
When the team lacks expertise
Not every source provides valuable information.
The marketing department can’t offer insightful feedback to manufacturing because it lacks the expertise and the necessary context. The same dynamics could occur in a team, though on a much smaller scale.
In many cases, a team leader’s experience and expertise might tower over those of their team members.
As such, involving team members in the decision-making process won’t add any value besides providing context to the final conclusion. Team members will simply have nothing to offer at that point.
Guidance and providing concise instructions gain greater importance than involving people in strategy discussions.
When predictability is the top priority
Think of emergencies.
Where decisions need to happen fast. When there is no time for brainstorming. When moving forward in a predictable way matters above all. In those cases, authority is concentrated on the leader and every decision goes through them. That doesn’t mean that communication stagnates.
On the contrary, information sharing takes a central role. It becomes much more efficient and focused. Filtering information strengthens and only the most essential things are communicated, aiming at creating a completely decluttered situation.
However, these situations rarely last long and for a good reason. These are highly intensive situations and require a massive energy expenditure from everyone involved.
In addition, the heavy information filtering hinders long-term progress since many opportunities are dismissed due to the situation’s urgency.
Although there is a time and place that democratic leadership doesn’t benefit a team, implementing more bottom-up initiatives loosens internal structure making the organization more adaptive.
In Cascade, you expose your strategic plan to your people, encouraging them to challenge it and spark meaningful conversations around it.