How Can I Make Democratic Leadership Effective?

What is the democratic leadership style?

People generally prefer a democratic leadership style, which focuses on democracy. Democratic leaders value the importance of team members’ input. They encourage collaborations with team members at any level in the decision-making process, downplaying the traditional hierarchy. They treat team members as peers.

Many academics studied on this topic over the years. John Gastill defined it as “the performance of three functions: distributing responsibility among the membership, empowering group members, and aiding the group’s decision-making process.” Thus, democratic leaders assist and rely on their team members to complete the work.

Participation by members is the key to democratic leadership. That is why it also has the name of participative leadership or shared leadership. This leadership style is almost the exact opposite of autocratic leadership, which disregards the members’ input.

However, being a democratic leader does not mean he is “lazy”. They are not delegating all the work to others and leave them unattended. Throughout the work process, they keep themselves abreast of the progress and chip in whenever needed. They are skilled in making good use of others’ expertise.

Because of the involvement of different team members in the decision-making process, democratic leadership requires leaders to establish consensus across the team and make the final call.

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Lively illustration of democratic leadership: Case of Twitter

Jack Dorsey (co-founder and CEO of Twitter and founder and CEO of Square) is famous for leading a democratic leadership style. His interview with MarketPlace has put the democratic leadership style into context:

“First, assembling the right team. (That means) hiring, certainly, but it also means parting ways with folks that just aren’t cutting it…making sure that we’re paying attention to that team dynamic and [that] it’s collaborative and it’s really challenging itself. Number two is making sure decisions are being made. I say that if I have to make a decision, we have an organizational failure. (That’s) because I don’t have the same context as someone who is working day to day with the data, with the understanding of the customer. I definitely see the organization and the people in it as the ones to make the decisions, because they have the greatest context for what needs to be done.”

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How is democratic leadership effective?

Team members and employees generally prefer a democratic leadership style. This is why this style is generally more effective. This is especially true when you are working with a team of highly skilled members. As you may see below, this leadership style can realise their potential.

Compared to the autocratic leadership style, democratic leadership has a wider application to almost all teams and departments in an organisation.

How does democratic leadership affect motivation and productivity?

Democratic leaders cultivate a collegial work environment and get team members engaged. This boost the connection between team members.

Delegation forms a big part in democratic leadership. Democratic leaders would delegate work to suitable teammates. By giving a sense of ownership, team members will be more responsible, proactive and motivated, which in turn would boost productivity.

Good democratic leaders also continuously empower their teammates and help them grow. They would provide directions on how to complete the tasks yet without micromanaging it. This gives room for creativity, flexibility and self-discovery. Team members would see as an opportunity to grow and learn with the team and thus develop a sense of belonging and satisfaction.

As democratic leaders communicate, they actively listen to their members’ views. It does not matter whether the members’ views were ultimately taken. What is important is to have their ideas heard, acknowledged and considered (not ignored). This, too, increases their sense of belonging and motivation.

With an increased sense of belonging and motivation, team members would set reasonable goals for personal development within the job. They will be more committed and willing to invest in their job and provide extra input (something more than instructed).

How does democratic leadership affect communication?

Democratic leaders encourage participation and collaboration among members. Through participation, team members are more open to share their feelings and contribute their thoughts.

From team members to the leader

First, this allows the democratic leader to understand more about the team for boosting its morale. This provides the basis to build trust among leader and members.

Second, it promotes the effectiveness in information flow through members. This is important especially in a client-facing businesses. It affects how well you can respond to clients’ feedback and make improvements.

From leader to team members

As democratic leaders have more discussions with their team, their team members would have learned more about the rationale of certain decisions. At the times when the members have to exercise discretion, their decisions would likely align with the team goal and the leader’s decision. This is so even if they do not fully agree with it.

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When is democratic leadership ineffective?

Despite democratic leadership style is generally more welcoming, it can have its ineffective times. Democratic leadership and autocratic leadership are at the two ends of the spectrum. Therefore, when democratic leadership fails to be effective, autocratic leadership may kick in.

When discussions and inputs are less meaningful

If we are working with a group of low-skilled and inexperienced people, the discussions and communications are likely less meaningful. This is because these people may not have the instinct and knowledge to make the right contribution in the first place. At this time, the autocratic leadership style can be more effective by giving strict instructions for these people to follow.

When time is tight

Democratic leadership style is ineffective when the deadline is so tight that it is not feasible to have room for getting everyone’s input, which may lead to procrastination.

As team members are chipping in with their inputs, the democratic leader has to mediate and achieve a consensus. Democratic leadership will not be the most effective if it is likely to take considerable time and efforts to reach consensus. We all know, having many meetings do not necessarily mean we are getting close to a consensus. They can lead us to nowhere far.

When the work has no room for mistakes

Democratic leadership style will not work best if:

  • the type of work or the department is highly regulated by internal procedures or law, e.g. the compliance department at a bank
  • if the work is highly controlled and requires perfection, e.g. food processing

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Are you a democratic leader?

Just as we do any math, this is, in fact, an equation. We need to see how well we fit into the descriptions in “What is democratic leadership style?” above.

On top of that, you are likely to be a democratic leader if you:

  • do not fear criticisms
  • are open-minded and adaptive
  • like working as a team yet also taking up responsibilities
  • enjoy facilitate discussions and building a consensus
  • share the decision-making process

How can you make yourself an effective democratic leader?

If you are likely to be a democratic leader, how can you make your leadership more effective?

  1. Be a very good listener. This cannot be emphasized more.
  2. Take the responsibility for the final call.
  3. Know the bigger picture, be organised and make constructive inputs in discussions. This maintains your leadership.
  4. Respect diversity and completely opposite comments.
  5. Know your team members’ personality and ability well and trust your team members for their expertise.
  6. Avoid pseudo-participation. If it is a consultation, mean it. No one likes to be consulted on a matter that has already been decided.

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