2019 - Workplace Democracy, Decision-Making, and a Brexit State of Mind?

Democracy; can it ever really exist in the truest form, or will there always be a slant of bias in one direction? Front page political news lately has predominantly consisted of Brexit, deal or no deal and whether we should hold another referendum. This had us drawing comparisons between considerations and actions we need to make in our own organisations, and considerations and actions required on the parliamentary stage.

So, this month we will be looking at Workplace Democracy, its benefits and challenges, and drawing parallels and illustrations from the current, broader democratic stage that is Brexit. But don’t worry, we won’t be getting political in this post! No need to spit out your coffee over your laptop with this article.

The Benefits of a Workplace Democracy

Workplace Democracy involves the application of democratic processes such as voting, debates and decision-making systems that include input from all employees, at all levels.

When you involve your employees in decision-making, they gain a professional and personal stake in your organisation’s future, and this can increase employee involvement, engagement, participation, and therefore productivity. It empowers them to directly contribute to the organisation’s success.

A popular model of workplace democracy is employee ownership, where employees maintain an equity share in the organisation, providing them with voting rights and greater involvement and influence. A great example is the John Lewis Partnership, whose employees are ‘partners’ and co-owners in the business. (Brexit Comparison… The 2016 EU Referendum attracted 72.2% of voters, one of the highest percentages in the UK’s history. It is suggested that one of the reasons was because it was a ‘direct democracy’ exercise, permitting the people to directly influence the final outcome).

The workplace democracy approach also helps the organisation to learn more about employees’ views, thoughts and feelings on what subjects and goals are most important for the future – details they may not have been able to ascertain just from working amongst them. Remember that your employees are your eyes and ears on the ground, usually with the most direct customer contact and therefore frequently best placed to understand changing trends in customer opinions (Brexit Comparison… When he called for an EU referendum, former Prime Minister David Cameron, the Government and many people were not expecting the result that came of it).

It is essential that you consider your approach carefully before proceeding with workplace democracy models. If invited to take part in organisational voting and decision-making, employees will have an expectation that their voices will be heard, and their suggestions implemented.

The Challenges

As you can imagine, there are also some complexities that can arise from workplace democracy.

The more employees involved in a decision-making process, the more difficult it may be to find a resolution to suit everyone, and the longer it may take. This leads to complications when the matter be urgent. Similarly, though a workplace democracy is intended to create an environment for employees to share their views and have their voices heard, some may wish to be heard more than others, and agendas may vary wildly, creating the potential for conflict and less-than-effective decisions, even departing from the original focus entirely. (Brexit Comparison: As we said, we won’t be getting political in this post, so we’re just going to leave this one right here for your own consideration…)

Managers need to tread very carefully with workplace democracies and involving all employees in decision-making. Managers should not only be present in a supervisory sense – it is their job to ensure all areas that could be impacted by a group decision are consulted and considered, before taking appropriate action. They are entrusted to use their qualifications, training, expertise and experience to shed light on areas that others cannot see (in a similar vein to the role of managers, in the UK we place our democratic parliamentary power in the hands of elected MPs for their qualifications, training, expertise and experience, with the expectation that they will represent our best interests in parliament).

When inviting employees to be involved with a decision-making process or vote, the onus is on managers to fully explain, share knowledge, communicate and educate, prior to a vote. This must be done without ego, hidden agenda, and be untainted by external noise, such as social media, biased external influences, office gossip etc. (Brexit Comparison: Many argue that a significant problem with Brexit is, at the point of the EU Referendum, parliament hadn’t fully informed the people of what would be involved with leaving the EU; and to be fair it could be argued that no one could really know, as the UK is the first EU member to evoke Article 50).

Be very aware that if a matter is put to a vote, with the advertised intention that the result will dictate the organisation’s next move, there will be an expectation for the organisation to deliver on that promise, whether they like and agree with the result or not. (Brexit Comparison: After 3 years, Brexit supporters are angry that a solution has not been reached, claiming that it is undemocratic that their vote is being ignored. They are also angry with the idea of a second referendum, suggesting that it sets a precedent for overturning a vote when the results don’t suit).

If, however, a decision has been reached together, but management feel the action may not be in the best interests of the organisation, and therefore plan to override the decision (or vote), they will need to fully explain why and highlight their most critical reasons, rather than offer a simple rejection. If not, employees may feel unimportant, rejected and as if their voices don’t matter, all leading to a significant dip in morale.

As you can see, workplace democracy comes with many benefits, but many complexities too. But communities, organisations and workplaces are nothing without the people that comprise them. One of the best and most effective solutions? Communication, communication, communication. Open, clear, comprehensive, honest, genuine, fact-based and unbiased. No matter where they stand on a variety of issues, people are generally reasonable. If they are well-informed, involved, respected, and not kept in the dark, people will always be more willing to work together for the greatest possible good.

Finally, some food for thought… If you invited your employees to vote on a business matter, and the result was not as you would have liked, would you override it if you felt it was in the best interests of the organisation, or would you honour the result? How might your decision affect your employees’ view of the organisation, and their future actions? If all else fails, should the approach of a child be used and whoever wins ‘rock, paper, scissors’ have their choice implemented?