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Mae Angeline

What is a Democratic Leadership Style, and Why Does it Matter?

The best, most motivating style of leadership? Democratic team leadership. Learn why, and how you can develop a more democratic leadership style.

When I ask you to cast your mind back and think of the best boss you’ve ever worked for, who comes to mind? 🤔

Why do they stand out in this way? Perhaps they made you feel listened to and respected? Perhaps they helped you grow in confidence by taking your ideas seriously and encouraging you to go outside your comfort zone?

Whatever it was, you’re probably not thinking, “They were the best boss because they pulled rank and made the rest of the team feel small.” 

Which is to say, they probably aren’t someone who led with an autocratic leadership style. But they might have been a democratic leader.

In 1939, Kurt Lewin researched the effectiveness of three different leadership styles, which have come to be known as laissez-faire, autocratic, and democratic. His research has been vital in influencing the way we think about leadership styles worldwide.

Democratic leadership, in particular, has received considerable attention in the corporate world, and democratic leadership training programs have helped managers understand the importance of engaging others in decision-making and working towards a common goal.

But how effective is the democratic leadership style, and why does it matter? In this article, we'll take a deep dive into this style of leadership, and look at why it's more effective than other leadership styles you might have encountered.

What is democratic leadership in the workplace?

Democratic leadership, also known as participative leadership, is a form of shared leadership where each group member can freely voice their opinions and share their knowledge. This demonstration of mutual respect makes the team feel involved, recognized, and satisfied in their organizational roles.

Participatory leaders are the ones to make the final decision, but only once they've heard from the whole team. Skillful democratic leaders are able to show that all opinions matter, whilst acknowledging that they can't make everyone happy with their decision.

How does democratic leadership compare to other leadership styles?

There are significant differences between the democratic, autocratic and laissez-faire leadership styles. These are primarily illustrated in how decisions are made, and how involved the leader is with the team.

Democratic vs. autocratic leadership

An autocratic leader controls every decision and rarely engages their juniors in the decision-making process. They have absolute power over the team, and are not interested in listening to other members' opinions.

On the other hand, with a democratic leadership style, leaders encourage participation, and give space to others to give their input regarding a problem. The leader still makes the final call, but they listen in an unbiased way to the thoughts of their team.

Democratic vs laissez-faire leadership

The other leadership style to consider is laissez-faire. A laissez-faire leader goes to the opposite extreme from autocratic leaders, trusting and relying on their employees to the extent that the leader has little input to the decision-making process.

While this may appear to be the ultimate democratic process, it is not the best style: the distance from the leader can leave the team devoid of direction and motivation.

Great leaders employing a democratic leadership style are not disconnected from their teams in this way. While the teams have input, the leaders share information on the goal and the constraints, to keep the team on track, and have the final say.

What are the benefits of democratic leadership?

By taking a democratic approach, rather than an autocratic or laissez-faire leadership style, your company and your team can benefit in the following ways:

Increased job satisfaction

Teams working under democratic leaders know that they are seen as individuals and their efforts are recognized. This increases job satisfaction and improves staff retention.

Higher productivity

A participative leadership style helps the group form closer relationships to their leaders, and feel more connected to the work at hand. This inspires team members to commit to their work and work harder to achieve the team's goals.

More creative thinking

One of the advantages of democratic leadership is that it enables members to develop innovative ideas, especially during brainstorming sessions. Unlike autocratic leaders, who make decisions on their own, or laissez-faire leaders who leave the discussion without direction, a democratic leader offers direction and boundaries, within which the team is able to experiment.

Effective problem-solving

Following on from creativity, democratic leadership enables a leader to use their creative team members to find new ways of solving problems. The free-flow of ideas helps the team develop more creative solutions for every challenge they are facing.

What are the characteristics of a democratic leader?

Here are some of the common characteristics of democratic leadership, illustrated by well-known CEOs who have used democratic leadership to guide their companies to success.

They listen more than they talk

"Being a good listener is absolutely critical to being a good leader; you have to listen to the people who are on the front line." - Richard Branson

Richard Branson, CEO of the Virgin Group, is another democratic leader who empowers his employees to reach his company's goals. Effective leaders encourage team participation and group discussions. 

However, if the company is to benefit from the diverse opinions and experience within the team, each team member must be confident that they will be heard. Active listening skills are a strong foundation for the democratic management style.

They don't need to have all the answers

"Great things in business are never done by one person, they are done by a team of people." - Steve Jobs

Decades ago, Steve Jobs, CEO and co-founder of Apple, started business with an autocratic leadership style. However, Apple almost fell in the mid-1990s, and Steve Jobs was asked to resign. When he returned ten years later, he took on a different leadership style: democratic leadership.

Steve Jobs employed other leaders to see his brand excel, and he even mentored his lead designer and manufacturing expert to make critical decisions in the company. In addition, being democratic meant he led his team members to be creative, enjoy working, and have brilliant ideas. This leadership style has seen Apple survive and become a giant in the manufacturing industry.

They can inspire people to get behind an idea

"Everyone has an idea. But it's really about executing the idea and attracting other people to help you work on that idea." - Jack Dorsey

Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, understands that he needs other people to help achieve the end-goal, but running the project in an autocratic way won't achieve positive outcomes. 

Being able to inspire people is crucial for a democratic leader, because you are relying on people to commit their energy and passion of their own volition. The people you work with need to want to work on the idea, either because they find the company's vision compelling, or because they have a sense of ownership that commits them to the project. 

What are the limitations of democratic leadership?

Despite the benefits we've discussed, there are a few disadvantages of democratic leadership. Here are situations where democracy may not be the most effective leadership style to adopt.

If there's limited time

The democratic leadership style may not work where time is a constraint. In the face of a crisis, for instance, you may need to execute a decision fast. It won’t always be possible to listen to everyone’s input and deliberate in this case, simply because time is of the essence.

If members lack expertise

Having multiple people with multiple opinions at the table may not be helpful if the group members don't have the necessary expertise to tackle the problem. Your employees should not be left to make crucial company decisions if they don't have the knowledge required to make those decisions.

If members aren't willing to share their input

Democratic leadership works best for teams where team members are keen to share their knowledge. If there are interpersonal issues limiting how much individuals want to participate, the process won't be effective. The team culture may have to evolve before it is ready for this leadership style.

If the information is need-to-know

A democratic approach may not be appropriate when addressing problems that involve confidential information. Even if the company culture supports transparency, there will be some decisions that are taken without a fully democratic process.

How do you develop a more democratic leadership style?

Adjusting your leadership approach can feel like a big undertaking. Here are some tips on how to nurture your democratic leadership style.

Begin with yourself

In Brene Brown's Dare to Lead, she talks about a leadership style that incorporates the emotions a leader experiences. It's about taking the vulnerable side and braving it by looking into existing fears and ineffectiveness.

When we stop seeing vulnerability as a weakness, we can let go of the need to have all the answers. This process arouses our own curiosity and willingness to learn, which in turn makes us more ready to listen to other group members. 

Remember, even the best leaders aren't experts at everything. 

Create a democratic environment

Empowering group members to speak their minds in an arena where they will be heard and respected is one way to build your skills as a democratic leader. In her book Radical Candor, Kim Scott outlined the importance of striking a balance between showing employees that you care about them as individuals and challenging them directly by being open and telling people when they make mistakes.

If you don't identify as a natural charismatic leader, finding the perfect balance between leading and guiding may be challenging. However, by understanding what motivates other people, you can learn how to encourage, give guidance, and receive feedback in return.

Stimulate participation

Make it clear to your team that their input is valued in the work environment. Having a participative leadership style can encourage creativity, critical thinking, and employee engagement.

It's also important to ensure there are no communication failures within the team. Effective overcommunication helps ensure everyone is on the same page, and feels equipped to offer their own creative ideas! To get the best out of your team, consciously make sure every group member has an opportunity to contribute.

Review your decision-making process

The democratic decision-making process takes the views, concerns, and suggestions of the team into consideration, but at the end of the day, the leader is still the one to take the final decision. Of course, that doesn't mean that you should be making every decision yourself: distributing responsibility for certain decisions to project leads and team managers is also crucial.

If your team planning is currently being run in an autocratic leadership style, with no input from the team themselves, then consulting with the group members is a good way to start shifting to a democratic style.

On the other hand, if your group's decision-making process is based on voting and consensus, you may find each step is a long and laborious process. Not only that, but differences of opinion can go on to form rifts and divides within the team. Make sure ground rules are established, so that the team understands that their suggestions are taken into consideration, but the decision ultimately lies with the leaders.

Use tools to ease the burden

An influential democratic leader uses effective project management practices that maximize everyone's potential. Know what your team can take on by monitoring their skills, utilization, and capacity. Be aware of their schedules and availability, so that you can plot upcoming projects correctly.

Finding the right tools can help you manage your resources and gain insights into the team's productivity, so that you can spend more time focused on optimizing your processes and team culture.

Key takeaway

While there are some situations where a democratic leadership style is difficult to apply, for most day-to-day project management situations, it can really bring out the best in a team. 

By involving your team in more decisions, you can ignite creativity and boost your team’s morale and buy-in, making them a more resilient, cohesive unit. It may take some getting used to, but we promise it’s worth it. 

And who knows, maybe one day someone will hit one of your team members with the question we laid on you at the beginning of the article - “Who’s the best boss you’ve ever worked for?”. And their mind will go straight to the democratic leader who made them feel encouraged, appreciated, listened to, and respected.

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