Democratic leadership style: How to make it work as a team

August 24, 2021 - 20 min read

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Different types of leadership

Types of leadership and the democratic style

What is the democratic leadership style?

Strengths and limitations of democratic leadership

Examples of democratic leadership situations

How to start implementing democratic leadership at work

Is a democratic leadership style right for you?

If you’ve worked in an organization of any kind, chances are you are familiar with different kinds of leaders and their unique ways of working.

Some leaders monitor your work really closely.

Some leaders want to make sure that everybody feels heard and understood.

For others, the only concern is getting the work done.

The different ways in which leaders interact with their teams are called leadership styles.

A democratic leadership style is just one of these possible options.

Let’s examine the democratic leadership style specifically. Its strengths and limitations, and ways in which it can be used effectively.

Different types of leadership

The most effective leaders combine various styles of management and leadership based on the need of the hour. However, most leaders show a dominant style.

One of the earliest frameworks on leadership styles was proposed by a team of researchers led by psychologist Kurt Lewin in the 1930s.

Lewin's leadership styles fall into three categories:

  • Authoritative (or autocratic leadership)
  • Participative (or a democratic leader)
  • Delegative (or a laissez faire leader)

Since then, various other styles of leadership have been proposed, including but not limited to:

  • Transactional leader: one who uses rewards and punishments to direct their team.
  • Transformational leader: one who identifies a needed change and motivates the group to work toward it.
  • Servant leader: one who prioritizes the greater good of their team, instead of their own objectives.
  • Situational leader: one who chooses their leadership style based on their goals and the current circumstances.
  • Autocratic leader: one who controls every decision and takes very little input from group members.
  • Bureaucratic leader: one who relies on a formalized set of rules and procedures.

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Each of these different leadership styles is worthy of an article all to itself. We will primarily be looking at the democratic leadership style in more detail.

 
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Types of leadership and the democratic style

A democratic leadership style invites group members to participate in decisions and provide input. Although the leader gets the final say on most decisions.

It’s important to keep in mind that there is also some overlap between different leadership styles.

A leader can exhibit different leadership styles when working with specific people. Or in certain environments. A leader might even use multiple different leadership styles at a given time.

A democratic leader may also be a servant leader.

Some leadership styles are in direct opposition to the democratic style. A prime example of this would be authoritative leadership. In the modern workplace, it’s seen as a form of toxic leadership.

A leader can’t be in complete control and also allow people below them to be part of the decision-making process.

In case you’re still unclear on what a democratic leadership style is, let’s discuss it in more depth.

What is the democratic leadership style?

The word “democracy” originates from the Greek words “demos” (the people) and “kratia” (power or rule.) 

So, a democratic leadership style is a form of participative management. It actively involves the people being led. They're part of the decision-making process about how they'll be led.

Most large organizations today include an element of participative leadership in the form of:

A few specific examples of leaders who have demonstrated this style of leadership include:

  • Former CEO of PepsiCo, Indra Nooyi, demonstrated how much she valued her team members by writing personalized letters to their parents. 
  • The 16th President of the United States and visionary leader, Abraham Lincoln, surrounded himself with extremely capable people. Even if they were likely to disagree with him and challenge his assumptions.
  • Former Secretary-General of the United Nations and charismatic leader, Kofi Annan, who was known for his ability to bring warring parties together.

Human beings have an innate need to have control over their lives. They need to feel like they are valued and can make valuable contributions to the world.

A democratic management style caters to these needs and is shown to enhance:

Democratic leadership can be extremely effective in certain situations. However, it's important to note that it’s not without its limitations.

The most effective leader is the one who knows when to use this style versus another.

For example, Abraham Lincoln used a democratic approach.

For months, he and his cabinet members engaged in an intense debate on the topic of abolishing slavery.

However, there came a point when, in the absence of a consensus, he made the decision and then announced it to his team. An arguably authoritative, yet effective, move.

In the next section, we'll look at some strengths and limitations associated with a democratic leadership style.

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Strengths and limitations of a democratic leadership style

Strengths:

A few years ago, I worked with a democratic leader who was known for his ability to make people cared for and valued as human beings.

He'd remember conversations from months ago and refer to specific details about people's lives. Like the name of your kids or spouse. The fact that your mother had undergone knee surgery. Or that you enjoyed playing tennis.

People were often left astonished and beaming with joy, even after spending a couple of minutes with him.

His leadership style also had some crossover with a transformational leadership style and was an authentic leader. Leaders who use this style create a vision and guide their teams through inspiration.

Not surprisingly, he commanded a rare kind of respect and loyalty from his team. And frequently led them to accomplish exceptional results.

A democratic management style can improve your culture of employee engagement, commitment, and job satisfaction.

This leadership style also leads to deeper relationships. Specifically between the democratic leader and their team members. This is accomplished by building trust and respect.

Also, a democratic leader encourages people to voice their opinions and share their ideas. So the team is more likely to come up with creative solutions to problems.

Also, democratic leaders allow the team to think through problems and decisions. This teaches their teams important skills. Like problem-solving and critical thinking.

Over time, these team members are in a better position to take on bigger responsibilities and operate more independently. Ultimately, developing new leaders.

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Limitations:

  • As mentioned earlier, there are some challenges associated with a democratic leadership style. The same leader I mentioned earlier-who deeply cared for his team wasn't at his best when it came to leading during a crisis.

    He frequently relied on his team's opinions when making important decisions. So it was challenging for him to make difficult decisions in a swift and independent manner.
  • Another limitation of the democratic leadership style is that there are various inputs and opinions to be considered. So arriving at a decision or a solution through this approach can be a slow process. Resulting in missed deadlines.

    There may also be adverse effects of leaving important decisions to a team that is unskilled or inexperienced.
  • In addition, a democratic process involves listening to numerous, and often contradictory, ideas. So getting to a consensus can be a real challenge. This may also lead to some team members feeling disheartened if their ideas don’t get chosen for implementation. A democratic leadership style tries to overcome these challenges as much as possible, and ensure everyone is happy with the end result.

These limitations can be effectively managed and minimized. Leaders who implement long-term deadlines and interim goals can help ensure team members’ perspectives on ideas, projects, and tasks are incorporated in a timely manner.

Structuring feedback can also ensure democratic leaders meet all deadlines. Examples include collaborative weekly check-ins and progress updates with team members.

Democratic leaders can also implement uniform processes for assessing each members’ inputs and opinions to ensure all are considered succinctly but with equal time and attention. These processes can reduce opportunities for emotionally charged decisions and bias towards members' ideas.

Now, we've looked at the definition, strengths, and limitations of a democratic leadership style. Let's look at some scenarios where it can be an effective approach.

Examples of democratic leadership situations

There are certain scenarios that offer a great place to practice democratic leadership. We’ll look at three of them here.    

  1. When you want creativity and innovation. As an organization, Google is known for its democratic way of operating. Employees play a role in making important company decisions. Through the use of extensive discussions and brainstorming.

    Google, of course, is also known for its creativity and innovation.

    A participative leadership style can be extremely effective. Especially if you are in a situation that calls for creative ideas and solutions. And time is not a primary constraint.

  2. When you have a millennial workforce. A recent Gallup study reported that today's millennial workers want to work with managers who will invest in their growth and career development. As well as value them as people.

    Does your workforce largely consist of millennials? Consider a democratic style of leadership. It is likely to keep your employees more engaged.

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3. When you are leading experts. There may be situations when you are leading a team of domain experts. They have deep knowledge about their field.

Often more than the team leader. And it is important to allow them the freedom to brainstorm ideas and come up with solutions. In such cases, taking a democratic approach is likely to get you better results.

You now know when to implement a democratic leadership style. The final section of this article will offer you some practical tips on how to get started.

How to start implementing democratic leadership at work

Here are four tips for adopting a democratic management style at work:

Decide if it's the right fit for the situation at hand

As we've seen, a democratic leadership style is not a one-size-fits-all solution. There will be times when this form of participative management is not the most effective approach.

As a leader, make sure you’re deploying this style when it can truly add value.

Ask yourself questions such as:

If your answers indicate that a democratic approach is what will get you the best results, then go for it.

Be open and transparent

If you've decided to use this approach for a specific situation, communicating openly with your team is the next crucial step.

Let them know:

  • Why are you using this approach? (e.g., that you value their feedback and want to improve something)
  • What the goals are. (e.g., coming up with a number of ideas before deciding upon a course of action),
  • What may be some pitfalls of the process (e.g., that it may take some time but is still important).

Collaboratively set up and communicate a process to maximize effectiveness. Some of the limitations of the democratic leadership style can be prevented by being proactive about them.

For example, you could discuss questions such as:

  • How will the final decision be made? Considering not everyone's ideas can get implemented?
  • How can we create a safe environment for everyone to openly share their thoughts?
  • What will happen if we can't reach a consensus?
  • How can we focus on delivering the best outcome without getting tied to specific ideas?
  • When will you, as a great leader, step in?

You can also look at structuring the conversation in different phases.

For example, phase one can be setting some ground rules and establishing psychological safety. Phase two could be brainstorming ideas. Phase three could be narrowing down the options. And phase four could be making the final decision and plan for execution.

Having a structure in place will clarify what employees can expect and how the process will proceed.

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Make sure people commit to execution

At the end of the process, some team members may be more engaged than others. Especially if their ideas were the ones taken into account.

However, you may still need the whole team for the effective execution of the decision or plan.

Make sure you have a way to get everyone on board with the plan, commit to their deliverables, and stay accountable.

Find time for reflection and lessons learned for the future

Reflection is crucial. So reflect immediately after the conversation is over, or once the decision has been implemented.

Find time to regroup and review the process:

  • What worked well?
  • What were the key takeaways?
  • What could have been better?

This reflection and learning will help you set up for success the next time you have a similar conversation.

Is a democratic leadership style right for you?

As we've seen, the democratic leadership style is one of many ways in which you can lead your team.

It has its strengths as well as limitations, and being thoughtful about when and how to use this approach can help you reap its benefits.

What are some situations at work where you can experiment with this leadership style?

What are some benefits that might come with it?

And what are some things you would like to watch out for?

Considering these questions will enable you to determine how well the democratic leadership style aligns with your vision. They will guide you in figuring out how this type of management can be leveraged to enhance your team’s performance and your company culture.

BetterUp builds leaders that accelerate team performance and engagement. Request a personalized demo. See how our coaching can help you develop your own democratic leadership style.

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Published August 24, 2021

Yashi Srivastava

BetterUp Coach, MAPP, CPCC

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