Leadership Development

The 5 behaviours of democratic leadership at work [A leaders field guide]

Here's a leader's rundown of democratic leadership; what it is and how to cultivate it in your teams and organization.

Saheed Hassan

Published on 

March 23, 2023

Updated on 

Time to Read

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The Niagara Institute recently conducted a survey that concluded that leadership styles have more impact on an organization's success than we may have thought. Which is most effective, you might ask? 

Well, according to many interviewees, democratic leadership is a popular choice because it facilitates collaboration, innovation, and employee engagement. 

Most organizations no longer use autocratic and directive leadership styles. In fact, the survey found that 89% of leaders consult their employees before making any decision. They understand that employees want an open participation culture where decision-making is no longer the leader's exclusive role.

This is the essence of effective democratic leadership. It builds a psychologically safe environment where leaders, teams, and individuals can contribute to decision-making.

This article will discuss democratic leadership: its strengths, limitations, and how to leverage it effectively. 

What is democratic leadership?

Democratic leadership is an open leadership style that encourages the participation of all employees in the workplace. It aims to stimulate open dialogue, mutual esteem, and collaborative decision-making. 

Also known as a facilitative, shared, or participative leadership style, it places much more emphasis on involving everybody than other leadership styles. Although the leader makes the final decision, everyone in the company participates and contributes to the decision-making process.

The democratic leader looks to establish a cooperative atmosphere in which team members feel appreciated, recognized, and empowered to provide their thoughts and beliefs even if they disagree with the leader.

You can demonstrate democratic leadership today by engaging employees through frequent survey forms, open discussions, 360 feedback, and other participatory activities.

Why is democratic leadership effective?

Reid Hoffman, LinkedIn's co-founder, famously said in his book The Start-up of You, 

"No matter how brilliant your mind or strategy, if you're playing a solo game, you'll always lose out to a team." 

Because democratic leadership favors an approach where the team mutually decides on choices, and everyone can express their opinion on the organization's path, it has certain advantages that benefit both the leader and team members. 

Below are reasons democratic leadership is effective.

Fostering a sense of responsibility and commitment

Employees commit more to their job when they can contribute to the decision-making process. 

This creates a sense of responsibility, increasing employee engagement and organizational commitment.

The organization experiences less absenteeism, a decrease in employee turnover, and an increase in productivity level.

Enhancing creativity and innovation

Creativity and innovation flow freely in a democratic environment because the leaders believe in the power of collective intelligence.

Encouraging employees to contribute their ideas and perspectives freely opens the path to exploring different viewpoints and thinking outside the box. And this leads to more creative and innovative problem-solving approaches for developing new products, services, and processes.

Improving communication and trust

By giving employees a voice to express their opinions and be heard, democratic leadership fosters a culture of trust. This facilitates establishing connections between the leader and team members and amongst the team. 

It encourages open communication among employees, allowing for a more thorough understanding of each other's viewpoints and an enhanced capacity to collaborate and resolve issues. 

Improving communication can also increase job satisfaction and morale as shown by a study of over 100 employees who worked at various service firms in Portugal. Communication needed to be free-flowing between employees, leaders, and the organization for satisfaction levels to be at their highest.

Boosting morale and motivation

Involving the team members in decision-making encourages team cohesiveness and boosts their morale. This often motivates employees to carry out their tasks effectively and efficiently, leading to better performance.

Facilitating learning and development

In this setting, employees don't only enjoy the liberty of learning from each other. They also enjoy the freedom of brainstorming ideas, receiving input and feedback, and finding solutions from each other. This helps develop relevant soft skills, such as critical thinking, communication, team building, and problem-solving skills.

Examples of democratic leaders at work

The success of organizations led by democratic leaders who prioritize collaboration, communication, and employee empowerment demonstrates the effectiveness of this style. 

This section will explore examples of such leaders, including Tony Hsieh, Larry Page, and Tim Cook. 

These leaders have demonstrated the characteristics of democratic leadership, fostering a culture of openness and inclusivity that drives innovation and success. 

Here are some examples of such leaders:

  1. Tim Cook, chief executive officer of Apple, is another exemplary democratic leader that keeps an open mind during meetings and encourages everyone to contribute to the organization's success. During a recent interview, Tim said, "I have some of the best and brightest people around me. And they're smarter than I am. And we’re able to solve some really big issues and problems by working together." 
  2. Tony Hsieh was a democratic leader untill he passed away in 2020. He prioritized his employees' happiness and ensured they felt cared for. Tony Hsieh valued and implemented many of his employees' ideas in his shoe business, Zappos. 
  3. Larry Page, the co-founder of Google, is another democratic leader that ensures employees feel engaged. He believed no idea was too crazy to be implemented. The empowerment enables team members to make suggestions that facilitate learning and development.

Democratic leadership behaviors 

There are some key leadership behaviors that distinguish democratic leaders from other types of leaders. These behaviors characterize effective democratic leadership. 

Active listening

Democratic leaders are active listeners who listen to their employees. 

They encourage employees to voice their thoughts and share ideas. Everyone's input is put into consideration before decisions are made. 

Embrace teamwork

Another major characteristic of this leadership style is that it embraces teamwork. 

The leader promotes the free flow of ideas during meetings and engages every team member in brainstorming sessions. 

Flexibility

Being flexible is one of the behaviors of a democratic leader. They are receptive to new ideas that promote the business and are often willing to adjust and adapt to changing work conditions and processes. 

Empathy

The ability to feel the emotions of your employees is a key characteristic of democratic leadership. A recent survey by Gartner revealed that only 29% of leaders exhibit empathy in the workplace.  

Lead by example

To have your team members follow and obey you, you have to lead by example. Democratic leaders aren't afraid to take proactive steps. Your actions must show forth what you expect from your members.

Limitations of democratic leadership style

Despite the advantages of this leadership style, like every other leadership style, it has its limitations. 

It’s important to understand the potential pitfalls of democratic leadership, so you can effectively mitigate the downsides and maximize the upsides.

Slow decision-making

In a situation with an urgent need for a decision, democratic leadership can be a hindrance as leaders involve their members in decision-making.

 This could take some time to collate employees' opinions and ideas, which aligns with Amy Climer's of Climer consulting on The Leadership Style Continuum podcast view. 

"The characteristic of [democratic leadership styles] is it is definitely a slower process than directive or autocratic style."

What to do about it

Due to this limitation, leaders must set a deadline for collating employees' ideas and opinions on issues. This way, you ensure decision-making is handled appropriately.

Contradictory ideas and disenchantment

There's no better breeding ground for contradictory ideas in a team than one where everyone comes from a diverse background, yet they all have a voice. Rest assured, there's going to be a clash of ideas.

This would lead to disagreements between team members. Climer says this could lead to disenchantment,

"But one of the challenges of this style is that it can produce a disenchanted minority."

What to do about it

The leader can manage contradictory ideas by scrutinizing every idea under a uniform process before making any decision. 

Team members lacking the expertise to make critical decisions

When it's time to make complex and critical decisions, democratic leadership will not be the best. Only a few team members have the expertise to make such a critical business decision.

What to do about it

On such occasions, it's best to restrict such decisions to c-suites and employees with expertise on the subject matter. 

Not ideal for handling emergencies and crises

When time is of the essence, democratic leadership is not always favorable, as there won't be enough time to explain the matter to every team member.

What to do about it

When faced with this challenge, be decisive and take the best option that suits the current situation or challenge. 

5 Tips for implementing democratic leadership at work

The skills of democratic leadership don’t have to be innate. You can cultivate them in your organization. 

Here are five helpful tips for implementing democratic leadership effectively at work. 

Foster open communication

It's not enough to encourage your employees to share their thoughts and ideas openly — you need to create an environment where employees feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and ideas. You should actively listen to their opinions and concerns and respond without prejudice and bias. 

Open communication fosters a culture of transparency and trust essential for democratic leadership to flourish.

Encourage collaboration

The lack of collaboration will stunt the organization's growth and development. Every organization willing to have democratic leaders must encourage their workers to actively participate in achieving goals. 

By breaking down silos and encouraging cross-functional collaboration, you can ensure everyone's ideas are heard and valued.

Delegate responsibility

Delegation is easy. It's knowing how and when that differentiates great leaders from the packs. A McKinsey study also shows an essential factor of delegation is giving people a sense of ownership and accountability.

Rather than allowing a particular set of people to do all the work, get every employee involved by delegating tasks to them. 

Give everyone a responsibility — no one must be left out when handling projects.

Create open feedback system

With a feedback system, you can efficiently conduct regular check-ins, employee performance reviews, and meetings.

The feedback loop helps identify your team members' areas of improvement and adjusts work style and processes.

Use mentoring to develop employees

Mentoring is an effective tool for developing employee skills and knowledge. By pairing team members with mentors with experience and expertise, you can help them develop their skills and grow professionally.

Through mentorship, employees are trained and groomed to become a better version of themselves. Mentoring models enable managers to refine their leadership skills by learning from others. For example, through peer mentoring, managers can learn from others with similar roles.

The Together Platform is an excellent tool for implementing mentoring in your workplace. It allows you to easily match mentors with mentees based on their skills and goals and provides tools for tracking progress and setting goals. 

Bottom line

You cannot underestimate the importance of having a great democratic leader in the workplace. Despite the limitations of a democratic leadership style, it is often considered one of the most effective. 

Democratic leadership shapes a psychologically safe work environment where everyone feels heard and valued. It builds employees a sense of ownership and commitment while motivating and boosting their morale. 

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