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7 steps to implement democratic leadership

Updated January 18, 2023 by Carl Lindberg

Democratic leadership seems easy and straightforward on the surface, but implementing this leadership style well is more difficult than that. This article contains seven steps to implement democratic leadership in your team that I have used many times during my management career. For starters, here is a short summary of the style from the main article on democratic leadership.

Democratic leadership is when an empowered team fully participates in the decision-making process. Ideas and suggestions can be brought forward by any team member, and there is a strive for consensus in decision-making. In the end, the democratic leader approves or makes the decision. Democratic leadership is an effective leadership style but can sometimes be too slow when fast decisions are needed.

Consider these seven steps before you start implementing democratic leadership in your team and be inspired by democratic leadership examples in the workplace and from my CEO career.

1. Start by using your closest team

The core of democratic leadership is participation, so why don’t you start by gathering your team and discussing it with them? Make sure all of you get a general orientation of the democratic leadership style and what it can do for you, and let the discussion start. This will generate ideas, support, inclusion, and participation, which is a great start to deploying democratic leadership and using it to build empowerment at the same time. In the end, this will also generate accountability within the team – they were part of it from the start, so they will also be part of any success or failure of this endeavor in the future. Develop your empathy as a leader before doing this, it will make things much easier for you. Also, consider using elements of Affiliative Leadership to strengthen team bonds.

2. High transparency and open communication

Inform your team and organization regularly on current developments, priorities, achievements, etc. Use multiple formats for this, and ensure you have some opportunity for people to ask questions and encourage them to do so. When those questions come, make sure to answer them properly.

If you use the phrase “never excuse, never explain”, then reconsider. In democratic leadership, it is important that you take the time to explain things to people, even if it regards your own decisions. Explaining things to people properly will make them feel valued, creates an opportunity for you to gather more information and ideas through feedback, and make them feel part of what you are trying to achieve together.

People who are regularly updated on company performance with their leader by explaining current events and challenges will make them feel respected and part of the overall picture – both will motivate them to higher productivity.

Consider how you run meetings in your organization. Find ways of getting everybody to communicate and avoid having a few people dominating the meetings. In discussions, complete the circle around the table and make sure everyone talks. Encourage all other leaders to do the same throughout the organization. People will get used to this in the end, and start working more inclusively. (Read about Why leaders should always speak last and 17 communication tips for leaders for inspiration.)

3. Put enablers for idea sharing and creativity in place

Consider different tools for stimulating creativity throughout your organization. These can be simple or complex. You and your team will set the bar.

Enablers for idea sharing, innovation, and creativity in the workplace:

  • Re-introduce the suggestion box – perhaps in the shape of an inbox in this digital age
  • Have recurring brainstorming meetings on specific topics. The purpose of the meeting is to generate new ideas, not find reasons why they will not work
  • Provide incentives for patents or great ideas
  • Set up a cross-functional forum for multi-disciplinary idea generation. You will be amazed at what can come from a session with people from sales, manufacturing, R&D, finance, service, and sourcing, for instance.
  • Remove the drama – an idea does not have to be the next big product for the company. All ideas count, even the ones making it easier to book a conference room in your office building

4. Deploy joint target and goal-setting processes

Avoid autocratic leadership when setting budgets, targets, and personal goals as much as possible. This is an area where it might be difficult to reach a consensus and even to gather ideas on how to raise the bar.

Enablers for setting targets in democratic leadership environments:

  • Have people start out by suggesting their own targets.
  • Involve a larger group. If the sales manager is in the room, he or she might make it obvious why production needs to increase its targets.
  • Ask what it would take to reach a higher target, then find ways together to enable that and remove any barriers and obstacles.
  • Work on targets and goals both ways. If a subordinate of yours is overcommitting, discuss whether the targets should be reduced. It would not be good for the leader to always push numbers up. After all, the targets should be the right ones, not the highest ones.
  • Discuss what reaching a higher target would result in for the team and the organization.

If you manage to get targets set jointly, the empowerment will be high, and the accountability will be great. In autocratic leadership, you can always blame your leader for setting an outrageous and unreachable target. It is an entirely different thing to blame someone if you took an active part in creating said target yourself. This will work like magic in terms of getting a willingness for execution and a hard drive to meet the target. Just make sure people get the support they need from others in the organization.

5. Inclusion in general and in the big picture in particular

Make sure people feel included. You will come a long way by deploying tips number one, two, and three above, but do not forget the big picture, be it your long-term vision or strategy. There are different levels of involvement possible here, and you and your team need to find out where to draw the line.

  1. A certain group can participate in creating the vision or strategy goal
  2. A larger group can participate in determining how to achieve the vision or goal
  3. An even larger group can participate in executing the “how”

There are pros and cons with most approaches on how to do this, of course. It is difficult to involve one thousand employees in number one, vision creation, right? Not necessarily. Involve them in creating the background information, submitting ideas, suggestions on what they think is the most important to achieve, etc. You can use surveys to gather input and reactions as well as deploy an affiliative leadership style. Doing this can grow engagement rates as well as ensure that people feel part of the bigger picture. Remember that participation in decision-making builds stronger decisions.

Regardless of how you do this, I think the efficiency and outcome of tip number three will be better the more you communicate and include people, as outlined in tip one and two. Do not go too far, though; remember that time also costs. Do not try to have 50 people agree on what your strategy is going to be. This is for a smaller group, just don’t forget the others regarding two-way communication aspects. (Again, check out our 17 tips on communication for leaders.)

6. Strive for but don’t require consensus

If you are a democratic leader, the consensus is a good thing. Try to build consensus when possible, but do not spend too long doing so. In the end, sometimes, a delayed decision can be costly and problematic. It is good if everyone agrees, but in the end, the democratic leader will need to make decisions every now and then, and struggling for consensus forever is be a disadvantage to democratic leadership. Just remember to be transparent. Let the team know what you think and why you took your decision. 

7. Ensure respect and commitment to execution

Do not settle for anything other than a genuine commitment to decisions in your top team. Even if there is a disagreement and lack of consensus in the team, once the decision has been taken, everybody needs to be committed to the decision and execute it as required. In democratic leadership, you get your voice heard. The price of this is that everyone else also gets their voices heard, and this will result in decisions that are sometimes unfavorable to a specific team member.

I show you exactly how to put these important mechanisms in place in my democratic leadership course, which will grow your leadership capabilities and improve your impact and career development.

Additional tips can be found here: How can democratic leadership be effective?

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