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Democratic leadership style: Pros, cons, examples, and how to make it work
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. There’s the leader who wants to closely monitor when and how you work, and the leader whose main concern is whether or not the work gets done. There’s the leader who wants to make sure people feel heard and understood and the leader who prefers to exert authority. The different ways in which leaders interact with their teams are known as leadership styles, and while the most effective leaders combine various styles of leadership based on the need of the hour, most leaders exhibit 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 in three categories: authoritative (or autocratic), participative (or democratic), and delegative (or laissez-faire). Since then, various other styles of leadership have been proposed, including but not limited to: transactional leadership, transformational leadership, servant leadership, and situational leadership.
In this article, we will take a deeper look at the democratic leadership style, its strengths and limitations, and ways in which it can be used effectively.
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The word “democracy” originates from the Greek words “demos” (the people) and “kratia” (power or rule.) So, a democratic leadership style is one that actively involves the people being led in the decision making process about how they will be led. Most large organizations today include an element of participative leadership in the form of employee engagement surveys, 360 feedback, and other forums for employees to share their ideas or concerns. A few specific examples of leaders who have demonstrated this style of leadership include:
- Former CEO of PepsiCo, Indra Nooyi, who demonstrated how much she valued her team members by writing personalized letters to their parents.
- The 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, who surrounded himself with extremely capable people who were likely to disagree with him and challenge his assumptions.
- Former Secretary-General of the United Nations, 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 and to feel like they are valued and can make valuable contributions to the world. A democratic leadership style caters to these needs and is shown to enhance employee engagement, job satisfaction, and morale. However, it’s important to note that while extremely effective in certain situations, a democratic leadership is not without its limitations. The most effective leaders are the ones who know when to use this style versus another. For example, Abraham Lincoln used a democratic approach and allowed months for debate in his cabinet about if and when slavery should be abolished. However, there came a point when in the absence of a consensus, he made a decision and announced it to his team—an arguably authoritative, yet effective, move.
In the next section, we will look at some strengths and limitations commonly associated with a democratic leadership style.
A few years ago, I worked with a leader who was known for his ability to make people cared for and valued as human beings. He would remember conversations from months ago and refer to specific details about people’s life—like the name of your kids or spouse, the fact that your mother had undergone a 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. Not surprisingly, he commanded a rare kind of respect and loyalty from his team and frequently led them to accomplishing exceptional results.
A democratic leadership style can increase employee engagement, commitment, and job satisfaction. This leadership style also leads to deeper relationships between the leader and their team members by building trust and respect. Also, because a democratic leader encourages people to voice their opinions and share their ideas, the team is more likely to come up with creative solutions to problems. In addition, by allowing the team to think through problems and decisions, democratic leaders teach 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.
- 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. Since he frequently relied on his team’s opinions in making important decisions, it was challenging for him to make difficult decisions in a swift and independent manner.
- Another limitation of the democratic leadership style is that because there are various inputs and opinions to be considered, arriving at a decision or a solution through this approach can be a slow process resulting in missed deadlines. There may also be adverse consequences of leaving important decisions to a team that is unskilled or inexperienced.
- In addition, since a democratic process involves listening to numerous—and often contradictory—ideas, getting to consensus can be a real challenge and this may also lead to some team members feeling disheartened if their ideas are not chosen for implementation.
Now that 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.
There are certain scenarios that offer a great place to practice democratic leadership. We’ll look at three of them here.
- 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 extensive discussions and brainstorming. Google, of course, is also known for its creativity and innovation. If you are in a situation that calls for creative ideas and solutions and time is not a determining constraint, a participative leadership style can be extremely effective.
- 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 development, and value them as people. If your workforce largely consists of millennials, a democratic style of leadership is likely to keep your employees more engaged.
- 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.
Decide if it’s the right fit for the situation at hand. As we have seen, a democratic leadership style is not a panacea and there will be times when it’s not the most effective approach. As a leader, make sure you are deploying this style when it can actually add value. Ask yourself questions such as: What is the goal? 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.
Be open and transparent. If you have decided to use this approach for a specific situation, communicating openly with your team is the next crucial step. Let them know why you are 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), and 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 be 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 being tied to specific ideas?
- When will you, as a 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.
Make sure people commit to execution. At the end of the process, some team members may be more engaged than the others—especially if their ideas were taken into account. However, you may still need the whole team for effective execution of the decision and/or plan. Make sure you have a way to get everyone onboard with the plan, commit to their deliverables, and stay accountable.
Find time for reflection and lessons learned for the future. 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, and what could have been better? This reflection and learning will help you set up for success the next time you have a similar conversation.
As we have seen, the democratic leadership style is one of various 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?