Democratic Leadership, also known as participative leadership, is an incredible leadership style. However, leaders struggle with actually building the diversity and multiplicity of perspectives to provide the right environment for joint decision-making and many other cornerstones of Democratic Leadership. This article contains guidance on how to achieve this, based on key principles I have used successfully over decades in senior management positions and CEO roles. We start with a short intro to this phenomenal leadership style, and you can always go to our main article on democratic leadership for a deeper understanding.
Democratic leadership is when an empowered team fully participates in the decision-making process. Any team member can bring forward ideas and suggestions, 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.
More diversity in opinions, different experiences, and multiple perspectives enable a better decision-making discussion and is something every democratic leader should strive for. I explain this more thoroughly in another article, “How inclusion and participation in decision-making with democratic leadership provide better decisions”, so this time I will focus on how to achieve this within a team.
Democratic leadership encourages diversity and differing perspectives by:
- Fostering a culture of trust, respect, and openness
- Deploying meeting methodologies that enable idea and opinion sharing
- Planning meetings with multiple and carefully selected meeting participants
- Creativity enabling communications tools and forums
These four key areas will be explained further in this article.
Foster a culture of trust, respect, and openness
It is critical for the success of democratic leadership that team members dare to speak up and feel welcome to do so. This requires openness, trust, and honesty among team members as well as between the democratic leader and the team. In fact, it is about shaping culture, not just team climate. You can read more about how to push organizational culture in the right direction for deeper understanding.
Six steps to creating openness, honesty, and trust in a team:
- Encourage personal contact between team members, so they really get to know each other, their concerns, opportunities, strengths, and weaknesses. (Using an affiliative leadership approach helps with this.)
- Identify and use opportunities for cooperation between team members. Cooperation builds mutual respect and understanding while underlining that different team members need and benefit from each other.
- Never mock, ridicule, or otherwise taunt a team member for mistakes, poor suggestions, losing an argument, or similar. Be sensitive to this behavior between team members and be serious about stopping transgressions. (Commanding leadership can be useful here.) If someone is poorly treated due to their opinions, ideas, etc., they and any others witnessing what happens will be much more reluctant to voice opinions in the future.
- Be open-minded as a leader and underline when you are changing your own opinion. The team needs to see that you are open to their ideas for real; otherwise, they will stop suggesting ideas since it appears futile.
- Ask for opinions concerning ideas, suggestions, etc., regarding your statements and behavior originating from yourself and other team members. Hearing how other people react provides additional perspectives and information while also enabling people to get to know each other more.
- Encourage information sharing, and be as transparent as possible with your team. A leader who shares information and lets the team know about other events, circumstances, challenges, etc., is more likely to be met with the same. On top of that, it is much easier for people to add reactions, opinions, and perspectives effectively if they are well-informed.
There are additional ways of doing this, but start with these five steps, and you will get far in terms of creating a good environment for different perspectives and opinions to thrive.
Deploy meeting methodologies that enable idea and opinion sharing
Make sure you use these key principles in meetings:
- Present thorough information about the topic and what is needed, i.e., guidance, brainstorming, decision-making, and information sharing.
- Ask people whether they have additional relevant information to clarify the picture further.
- Discuss the topic to let people get acquainted with it while also presenting their opinions:
- Go in order around the table to ensure everyone speaks their mind
- Kindly and politely harness the extrovert and overly talkative people, so they do not take over the discussion completely
- Ask the quiet team members specifically for their opinions, and guide them into doing so with phrases such as: “I am curious to hear what you think about this given your experience from logistics”, or “You seem to be thinking hard about this, what is on your mind”, etc.
- Guide and direct the team to stay on topic and kindle nudge people who digress
- Summarize where you are now and then during the discussion: “It seems most of the customer-facing colleagues are pointing towards specific risks with this, although there are many advantages, such as x and y, with this suggestion. Let us drill a bit deeper into the risks to ensure we all understand them and their potential consequences”, as an example. This helps to keep focus.
- Once the topic has been dealt with, summarize the conclusion and ask if anyone disagrees or has additional comments before you move forward to another issue.
- Show appreciation for people sharing opinions and perspectives straight out.
- When you identify an idea that will not work, thank the person suggesting it, kindly explain why you think it needs to be disregarded, and move the discussion elsewhere. Do this with care, since you want this person to feel respected and welcome to suggest additional ideas in the future. No one benefits from talking about a topic that does not bring you closer to your meeting goal.
There are several key drivers to democratic leadership embedded in these principles, including respect, a show of appreciation for input, enabling everyone to comment, and cementing the joint conclusion through an end summary clearly defining what has been achieved. Ineffective meetings are among the disadvantages of democratic leadership since the team can get bogged down in endless discussions, so the leader’s role as a facilitator is absolutely critical to make this work properly. (Facilitation like this requires a lot of Emotional Intelligence.)
Planning meetings with multiple and carefully selected meeting participants
To the extent possible, ensure that the correct and relevant team members are invited to a meeting depending on the topic. If you bring the entire team in for every topic, you run the following risks:
- Less effective meetings since more working hours are spent due to the number of attendees, but also since the discussions might take additional time
- Establishing a consensus culture, where team members feel they can and must have a say about every topic, which inadvertently can lead to voting-type behaviors
- Disrespecting the true experts. Some topics should be delegated to responsible people; otherwise, accountability might be undermined. If a specific field of expertise fully encompasses the issue, let us say how to perform an inventory count, it might appear strange for the warehouse manager for decisions to be taken by team members in sales, engineering, marketing, and other functions.
- Forced creativity where team members feel an expectation to come up with ideas even on topics where they might have nothing to add. If they suggest things, they might be obvious and generic opinions, but if they do not suggest anything, they might be seen as uncaring or unwilling to participate
Try to bring people who are relevant to the meeting topic, either because they are resources, have experience or expertise, or are otherwise stakeholders to the topic that can provide valuable perspectives. It will also help with building consensus. Securing reasonably skilled and experienced participants is one way of making democratic leadership an effective style, and to a degree even a requirement.
How should you handle the people who are not invited, then? Remember that you, as a democratic leader, need to be transparent. Simply inform the team that there will be a meeting on topic X and that you suggest team members a, b, and c participate and mention the reasons behind this. On more important topics, you can ask if anyone else sees a need to participate. For less important topics, let the rest of the team know that this meeting will be held or has been held and what the conclusions were. If needed, explain your choice of attendees briefly. Using this approach, you provide information and foster transparency, show respect for everyone’s time, and let people know why you selected the attendees the way you did, which avoids any speculations on your reasons.
Creativity enabling communications tools and forums
If you are serious about gathering ideas and enabling creativity, you need to ask for people’s input. This can range from idea contests, brainstorming workshops with larger audiences, communication campaigns, new ideas as a standing agenda point, and all the way to using the good old suggestion box located somewhere easily accessed by the entire staff.
Additional resources on Democratic Leadership
Please have a look at our vast collection of articles concerning democratic leadership: