Opinion by Paul Glen

The workplace will never be a democracy

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Credit: Rama via Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-2.0

People in IT keep saying that they want democracy at work. But when you probe that idea, it completely falls apart.

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One of the most persistent ideas I’ve heard in my decades in IT is that we geeks want democracy at work. Surprisingly, I’ve heard it from managers and executives as often as I have from front-line geeks.

But when you scratch the surface, you see that we don’t really want democracy at all. We want a lot of other things related to what we value and how we’d like our workplaces to operate. Somehow this gets shorthanded to “We want democracy,” but what we really want are much more specific things:

  • We want our managers to listen to us.
  • We want to feel that we have a chance to influence the decisions that affect us.
  • We want to be able to prevent our managers from making dumb decisions.
  • We want some type of recourse when our managers make those dumb decisions.
  • We want to dictate our own deliverables and deadlines.
  • We want more autonomy in setting our own priorities and approach to meeting goals.

The question we have to ask is, “Would a truly democratic workplace provide these things?” The answer requires a clear understanding of what democracy is and how it would look at work.

At its core, democracy involves politics. There is irony, then, that geeks so often clamor for democracy, because politics is something that nearly all them profess to despise. Geeks think of politics as the stuff that self-serving, narcissistic people do to aggrandize themselves or gain status and control of a group. In reality, though, politics is something that is much more than that, while at the same time being something that is really quite simple. It’s the process by which groups make decisions. Nothing more. Some people approach group decisions as if the collective should cater to their personal concerns or recognize their superiority by granting them the right to make decisions for everyone. That’s the sort of thing that causes geeks to hate politics, but politics need not be treated that way.

Democracy is a political system because it is a method for a group to make collective decisions. But like politics itself, democracy can take more than one form. In a representative democracy, the group selects its own leaders (or a single uber-leader), either by majority vote or consensus. Those leaders then make decisions collectively, also by majority vote or consensus (or by fiat, if a single leader has been elected). In a non-representative democracy, every decision is made by the entire group, by direct vote.

Now imagine what a representative democracy would look like at work. Managers would no longer be appointed through a top-down selection process. Instead, on some sort of regular basis, each group or team would elect a manager. The decision about who will make decisions would come from the bottom up, a transfer of power from more senior management to subordinates. The elected managers would form some sort of collective decision-making body. If that body were anything like the U.S. Congress, decision-making would be chaotic and slow. And I have trouble imagining a CEO ceding decision-making authority to this elected body of managers. Stripped of the right to select a leadership team, she definitely would not feel responsible for the direction or success of her organization.

If a representative democracy would be a disaster in the workplace, a non-representative democracy would be worse. If everyone had to have a say in all decisions, the organization would become one giant, sclerotic committee.

So let’s stop saying we want democracy at work. If what we really want is to change how our workplaces operate and to be given more influence, then we need to be more articulate about those goals and how they could be practically implemented. Calling what we’re seeking “democracy” just makes us look naive or foolish.

is the co-author of The Geek Leader's Handbook and a principal of Leading Geeks, an education and consulting firm devoted to clarifying the murky world of human emotion for people who gravitate toward concrete thinking. You can contact him at info@leadinggeeks.com.

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