These changes, while accelerated by the global pandemic has been happening for a number of years. As people look for more work life balance and even changes in the type of people that are hired, have forced organisations to relook at the way they operate when it comes to staff.
In the past leaders were seen to be unwavering captains that guide their organisation with data and past experiences have failed to fully grasp at how to lead a team of employees who no longer work or operate in the traditional ways of work. They also fail to grasp the needs of a neurodivergent team.
This is where using democratic leadership can be a powerful tool for building consensus and motivating a team. But like any other style of leadership, it’s important to assess whether it will be suitable for your unique organisation.
In this article, we’ll explore when the democratic leadership style would be appropriate and some of the advantages it can have in the workplace.
What democratic leadership is, and what sets it apart from other leadership styles
A democratic leadership style allows people at all levels in an organisation to engage in the decision-making process. It was first coined in 1939, by psychologist Kurt Lewin, when he and his colleagues documented three leadership styles:
- Laissez faire
The autocratic leadership style sits at one extreme of the spectrum, laissez faire at the other end, and democratic in the middle.
When leaders lead with an autocratic style, they make all the decisions themselves without gathering any input from their teams. Effectively, the leader runs the team or business as an autocrat. Conversely, laissez faire leadership sees the leader defer the decision-making to their team and rarely step in to lead decisions or provide any input. Both of these styles are extreme (and hopefully rare these days), with most leaders taking a more centric, or democratic, approach to leadership.
The democratic leadership style is one in which the leader makes decisions based on input from their team and stakeholders. They gain the input through a wide variety of methods – both formal, like votes or surveys, and informal, like discussion and brainstorming.
The democratic leader still has the final say, but they make decisions by considering the majority opinion of the group. According to Wyda founder and CEO Kate Kesby many leaders are yet to realise how much they can rely on their people.
“To make a democratic leadership style work, leaders need to set clear expectations of the outcomes the business is trying to achieve,” says Kate. “The team needs to know what the risks and opportunities the leader can see so they can act, within their roles, to mitigate or take advantage of them.”
The democratic leadership style is seen as one of the most effective leadership styles because it can help build consensus and morale among team members.
Some other names for democratic leadership include:
- participative leadership,
- shared leadership,
- collaborative leadership, and
- consensual leadership.
Democratic leadership is beneficial for any team as it gives team members a voice and encourages them to work together to find solutions. This type of leadership is particularly effective when the team is motivated and has a shared goal.
How does the democratic leadership style differ from other styles?
As we’ve explored above, the democratic leadership style is different from other leadership styles in that it allows for input from all members of the team when it comes to making decisions.
Some managers will take a different approach, such as simply telling everyone what to do and making all the decisions themselves (autocratic leadership). Or by deferring all decisions to their team (laissez faire leadership).
While traditionally the democratic style has been viewed as one that slows down decision making Kate believes a modern democratic leadership style allows leaders to think and respond to the market much faster than an autocratic or laissez faire leadership model, and this is taking into consideration the broader shift to more agile teams. Rather than simply seek feedback and come back to the leader for a decision, the teams know what matters, know what they are empowered to make decisions on, and go.
“I think more directive leadership worked in a time where there was more certainty in cycles of setting and executing strategy, and is still effective where there is a narrowly defined way forward , but we just have to accept that the world is changing too fast now,” she says. “It’s an unrealistic expectation of leaders to be across every detail. Their span of control has got bigger, the pace of change has got faster. Those two things combined have made the job of leaders trying to control everything virtually impossible.”
Democratic leadership is an effective way to manage a team, especially when there is a need to build morale, increase collaboration or make a shared decision. For example, remote teams benefit greatly from this leadership style as it helps everyone feel connected to the day-to-day and longer term goals of the business. However, it’s not all sunshine and roses
– there are some disadvantages to this leadership style that need to be considered.
Advantages of democratic leadership
- Building engagement
By involving team members in the decision-making process, you can ensure that everyone is on board with the final decision. This group morale and collaboration, as team members feel like their voices are heard.
- Improving performance
Because team members are involved in the decision-making process, they’re more likely to be motivated to see the project through to completion. They care more about end results, which leads to higher productivity.
- Developing creativity
Team members are more likely to share their ideas when they feel like they have a say in decision-making processes. Brainstorming can also be more effective under democratic leadership, as team members will feel comfortable sharing their ideas.
- Making better decisions
When all team members have a say, the final decision is likely to be of higher quality. Democratic leadership can also help prevent groupthink, as team members are more likely to share alternative ideas especially if you have a diverse team..
- Boosts remote or hybrid team culture
Leadership challenges are only amplified when managing a hybrid or remote team. Leaders must be decisive and clear, while also being collaborative; strategic, while also understanding the grassroots; action-oriented while also being risk-aware; and attentive, while not micromanaging. A democratic leadership style involves everyone in the decision-making process and encourages them to contribute new ideas. It also helps employees working in disparate locations feel empowered and motivated.
Disadvantages of democratic leadership
- It can take longer to make decisions
The leader needs to take time to gather input from all team members before making decisions, which can slow the process down. Tip: decide what the team is empowered to make decisions on at the coal face, without having to bottleneck everything through the leader.
- It can be challenging to implement in large organisations
In large organisations, it can be difficult to get everyone’s input in a cohesive manner, especially across multiple teams and stakeholder groups. Tip: learn to collaborate asynchronously, so people can review and share their thoughts faster
It’s not appropriate for all situations
For example, if a team is working to a deadline, it may not be possible to gather input from everyone before the deadline passes. Also, sometimes decisions simply need to be made by the leader, such as restructuring or redundancies. Tip: consider a ‘retro’ or debrief to give people the opportunity to voice their ideas if there wasn’t time beforehand to continually iterate, learn and grow.
You can start to develop your democratic leadership skills in a variety of ways, from getting your team involved in decision making, to taking part in professional development programs.
Quick tips for implementing a democratic leadership style
- Start small: If you’re new to democratic leadership, start with great questions about small decisions, like: “How might we…?” Ask your team what they think about how you should pitch to an upcoming prospect, or how they’d approach the start of a new project. It will help your team members get used to having a say in decisions and you might be surprised by the quality of new ideas and ownership it generates
- Explain the advantages: Explain the advantages of democratic leadership to your team. Let them know you’d like to start gaining their input more often, and why it’s important to you and the business to move in this direction. This will help them understand why you’re using this leadership style and how it benefits them and how they can best contribute.
- Be patient: Plan ahead and allow more time than usual for decisions you need to make. Gathering everyone’s input takes time, meaning decisions will take longer to make than you’re used to in the past, but typically execution of the plan is more efficient because you have higher levels of understanding and ownership over the outcomes you are trying to achieve. . Be patient and allow team members the time they need to provide their input. Rushed or pressured requests for input isn’t fun for anyone.
- Don’t force it: If democratic leadership isn’t working for your team, don’t force it. Reflect on what is lacking in your own skills, or those of your team, or how the business context may have changed. Try another leadership style that may be more appropriate for your organisation while you build the underlying capability required. .
Get hands-on experience with democratic leadership before applying it in real life
Want to learn more about democratic leadership and coaching? Wyda’s virtual game-based platform helps leaders and executives build business acumen and trial the impact of different leadership styles in a simulated, immersive environment.
‘Wyda teaches skills to improve leadership, engagement, intrinsic motivation and structural agility – skills that can be spread among teams,’ Kate says.