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

June 9, 2022 - 19 min read

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What is the democratic leadership style?

Different types of leadership

Benefits of a democratic leadership style

Democratic leadership behaviors

Advantages and limitations of a democratic leadership style

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've encountered different kinds of leaders and unique management styles.

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.

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.

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

 

What is the democratic leadership style?

This leadership style is used across industries and organizations, from the corporate world to government and education.

Most large organizations today include an element of participative leadership. They tend to be through employee engagement surveys, 360 feedback, and other forums. These all offer space for employees to share their ideas, interests, and concerns such as debriefs, check-ins, or idea pitches.

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Examples of democratic leaders

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.

 
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Different types of leadership

The most effective leaders combine various styles of authority based on the need of the hour. There are key leadership characteristics that connect each leadership style. But, most leaders show a dominant style, in addition to these other leadership behaviors.

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.
  • Charismatic leader: one who inspires others by building interpersonal relationships.
  • 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.

Benefits of a democratic leadership style

The democratic leadership style can benefit both employees and employers. When it comes to employees, human beings have an innate need to have control over their lives. They need to feel that their efforts are recognized and that they can make valuable contributions to the world. When these needs are fulfilled, employees are more likely to stay with their current organization.

A democratic management style caters to these needs and is shown to have the following benefits:

Many of these benefits ladder into one another. And they all feed into the makings of a satisfied, retained workforce.

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Democratic leadership behaviors 

A manager or leader that embraces this type of leadership style has some distinct leadership qualities. These leaders are collaborative, mindful of others, and often empathetic to their teams.

Here are 3 common characteristics of democratic leadership:

  • Embracing teamwork: good democratic leaders understand the value of teamwork. They offer team-building opportunities for employees to collaborate and take leadership roles within their groups.
  • Team and employee empowerment: these leaders encourage employees to share their opinions. They may hold brainstorming sessions or leave space for conversation and a free flow of ideas.
  • Engaged and creative employees: teams managed under this leadership approach are often more engaged and creative than those under some more restrictive leadership styles.

Advantages and limitations of a democratic leadership style

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

Democratic leadership works well when used alongside other different leadership styles. These are some of the pros and cons of the democratic leadership style.

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Advantages of democratic leadership style

As we mentioned earlier, 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.

Limitations of democratic leadership style

  • Often drawn-out decision-making process
  • Choosing between multiple opinions can leave employees feeling disappointed
  • Difficulty pivoting quickly
  • High-stakes decisions can feel rushed

Along with the benefits, there are some challenges associated with a democratic leadership style. Though democratic leaders care deeply cared for their teams, they may have trouble leading during a crisis.

These types of leaders rely on team opinions when making important decisions. So it can be challenging for them to make difficult decisions in a time crunch.

Additionally, there are various inputs and opinions to be considered when making decisions. So arriving at a decision or a solution through this approach can be a slow process. 

Lastly, 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 aren't chosen for implementation.

Overcoming the challenges of a democratic leadership style

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 quickly.

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 member's inputs and opinions to ensure all are considered. These processes can reduce opportunities for emotionally charged decisions and bias toward certain 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.

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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 in 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:

1. 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:

  • What is the goal?
  • Why does it matter?
  • Who is affected by it?
  • How much time do I have?
  • What's the most important outcome I am looking for from using this approach?

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

2. 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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3. 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.

4. 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 to 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. Connect with us to see how our coaching can help you develop your own democratic leadership style.

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Published June 9, 2022

Yashi Srivastava

BetterUp Coach, MAPP, CPCC

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