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Democracy in the Workplace

October 1, 2011

In the West we often accept and defend democratic ideas in politics – but what about in the workplace?  I think its important for us to think about workplaces in the sense of spaces that are democratic or authoritarian, because we tend to spend so much time there.  The bookshelves of local stores bustle with business books about leadership looking at every possible approach from militaristic to hand-off approaches. But what of not focusing on a ‘leader’?  Merrelyn Emery writes on this very topic and starts with reporting an interesting study of the subject of how to organise work; authoritarian, democratic or nothing (laissez-faire);

The amount of productive work varied significantly between the autocratic, democratic, and laissez-faire conditions. When the leaders arrived late in the authoritarian groups, for instance, the boys made no initiative to start new work or continue work already under way. In the democratic condition, the groups were already productive. In laissez-faire the groups were active but not productive.

When the leader left the room in the groups showing a submissive reaction, the percentage of time spent in serious work dropped from 74% to 29%. In the groups showing an aggressive reaction, the drop was from 52% to 16%. The motivation to work was leader-induced, not intrinsic to the boys. In contrast, the democratic group remained stable, with a negligible drop from 50% to 46%.

The democratic groups had by far the highest quality of work and made far more suggestions about how work could be done. They had internalized the group goals. Pride in work also differed significantly. The democratic groups presented their work or took it home, whereas in one authoritarian group, the boys actually tried to destroy what they had made.

Overall, the democratic form showed its superiority on every measure.

It seems that by empowering people within a workplace to be involved in how that space and the activity within operates, you also help to motivate people too. This seems to fit to me, because as the places we work (if you live in a democratic country) are also within our democratic societies, you’re not going to check in your experiences at the door when you clock in. Work is still part of society.

Merrelyn breaks work organisation down into 2 models of operation; autocratic (DP1) or democratic (DP2):

DP1 is called ‘redundancy of parts’ because there are more parts (ie people) than are required to perform a task at any given time. In DP1, responsibility for coordination and control is located at least one level above where the work is being done. That is, those above have the right and responsibility to tell those below what to do and how to do it. DP1 yields a supervisory or dominant hierarchy. Individuals have fragmented tasks and goals: one person–one job.

DP2 is called ‘redundancy of functions’ because more skills and functions are built into every person than that person can use at any one given point in time. In DP2, responsibility for coordination and control is located with the group of people performing the whole task. Each self managing group works to a unique set of negotiated and agreed, measurable goals, comprehensively covering every aspect of the work, social and environmental as well as production.

DP1 structures are hierarchies of personal dominance. DP2 structures are non-dominant hierarchies of function, where change is negotiated between peers. … DP1 structures induce competition, whereas DP2 structures induce cooperation. Over time, DP1 actively deskills and demotivates people, whereas DP2 skills and motivates them.

Very interesting and well worth a read!

(Hat-tip to Michel for the link. Also posted on P2P Foundation Blog.)

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