There are various ways to lead a group of people - and they can be applied to all sorts of teams, from a sports team to a business or a whole country. The leadership style you use will shape the team you lead significantly.
While many leaders use a combination of different leadership styles, the one that gets the most praise and attention is probably the democratic leadership style. That is why today we would like to introduce you to this leadership style. Reading this article should help you gain an understanding of what this leadership style is, and how to reap its rewards.
Other leadership styles include (but are not limited to):
- Autocratic ("Do as I say")
- Authoritative ("Follow me")
- Pacesetting ("Do as I do!")
- Coaching ("Consider this")
- Affiliative ("People come first")
- Laissez-Faire or delegative (“Do what you think is best”)
Compared to these leadership approaches, democracy comes with a promise of larger participation of team members in the decision making process - which has its pros and cons and it is important to be aware of them.
Let us take a look at the specifics of it so you can decide how and when to use it.
What is the democratic leadership style?
Similarly as in politics, democracy in the workforce bears a promise of higher participation of the people - in this case, the employees. They are actively involved in decisions about the company goals, a lot of collaboration, brainstorming and creative workshops may be taking place, in order to utilize the full potential of the team and also to make everyone feel valued, recognised and engaged. While the leadership still holds all the power, it voluntarily gives some of it to chosen members of the group. Responsibility is shared among all members of the team with the leader present to offer guidance. The goal is to instill mutual respect through open conversations and bring out the best that people can offer.
That all sounds nice, right? So are there even any reasons not to use this approach? Let us go a bit deeper into the pros and cons of this approach.
Pros of Democratic Leadership
- Increased productivity and job satisfaction
- Creative and innovative environment
- Builds strong relationships
- Builds trust and encourages honest feedback
- Millennials especially appreciate this approach.
Cons of Democratic Leadership
- Time consuming
- Possible communication failures
- Minority or individual opinions overridden
- Not the best fit for less skilled / junior teams
- Organisation gets more difficult with larger teams
1. Increased productivity and job satisfaction
By its very definition, this leadership style invites involvement from people who may not otherwise be included in the decision-making process. Democratic leaders encourage employee engagement and input, two things that improve morale and performance. People are likely to be happier when they feel that their voice matters. When you bring an idea to the table and it is heard, discussed, and potentially implemented in the eventual course of action, it’s hard not to feel appreciated.
2. Creative and Innovative Environment
Two heads are better than one. Working with a wider pool of experience and opinion brings more creative input to the decision-making process. This free flow of ideas, strengthened by various viewpoints reflecting the diversity of your team, may lead to decisions being made that have been held to higher standards of scrutiny than they might have been otherwise. Holding up a potential solution to commentary is a good way to identify its weak points before implementation, rather than cleaning up the mess afterward.
3. Builds strong relationships
Since people are likely to spend a lot of time together discussing decisions and working with leaders, it is more likely that strong team units will form. But it doesn't come entirely for free. For employees to feel comfortable sharing ideas with the knowledge that they will be taken seriously, leaders have to spend time building deeper relationships with employees. Unlike a transactional or autocratic leader, democratic leaders move beyond performance and productivity in their dealings with workers. As this culture becomes established, the whole team becomes more tight-knit.
4. Builds trust and encourages honest feedback
The democratic leadership style is based largely on mutual respect. When people need to learn to work with their co-workers, understand their thoughts and ideas, and work together on reaching team goals, it can increase feelings of trust and respect among team members. That can't work without honest feedback, which is why a lot of democratic leaders use the 360 degree feedback process.
5. Millennials especially appreciate this approach
In 2025, 75% of the global workforce will consist of millennials. That’s why it is vital to be ready to review and transform company culture and processes to meet their needs, if someone hasn’t already.
The features of employees depend on the circumstances and environment they grew up in. The generation of millennials comes from the economic recession, ecological problems and tragic terroristic events. They were raised to value honesty, always strive to learn more and to find their passion and give it their everything. They are more likely to engage with colleagues and friends outside the professional space and prefer to help each other. The stereotype of millennials being needy comes from the fact that they don’t want to sit in one place for 10 years. They expect a company to provide room for growth and personal development. Millennials need to feel more engaged in the process and more valued. That's why the democratic leadership style suits them perfectly.
1. Time consuming
Decisions may be reached less quickly than under other leadership styles (autocratic leadership is the perfect example of this). It does take time to gather everyone's opinion on something and then make a decision. On the other hand, it’s likely that the eventual solution will be arrived at via a more rigorous process and therefore might end up being better and more well thought. That is why democracy is generally cast aside in a crisis, when difficult decisions need to be made swiftly.
While collective decision-making has many benefits, it can fall into the trap of circling around an issue without being able to reach consensus or a viable solution. This is where a leader needs to know when to step in and steer the discussion or make the final call.
3. Communication failures
In situations where roles are unclear or time is of the essence, democratic leadership can lead to communication failures and uncompleted projects. Additionally, if team members’ contributions are required for every decision, they may begin to question whether the leader actually knows what they are doing. Therefore, to avoid this, the leader must carefully decide which tasks should be assigned to which team, and which decisions are best made by the leader himself.
4. Minority or individual opinions overridden
Teams that consist purely of individuals that consistently agree with each other, are not the best to bring creative solutions to the table. Diversity in the workplace is paramount for crowdsourcing ideas, but may cause difficulties when left completely unattended. A team member with opinions and ideas that are too far from the most common opinions in the group may feel like their input isn't taken into account enough, if a leader does not step in.
5. Not the best fit for less skilled / junior teams
Crowdsourced solutions aren’t always the best. In some cases, group members may not have the necessary knowledge or expertise to make quality contributions to the decision-making process. Junior or less skilled teams may need a bit more direction. A leader must be able to guide discussion to productive areas, and to step in if good ideas are not forthcoming.
6. The process gets more difficult with larger teams
It is not easy being a leader who has tons of ideas thrown their way. It can be more challenging with larger teams to keep everything straight (when organizing events, gaining feedback and trying to hear every opinion). That is why an active democratic leader has to be competent and intelligent in how they approach and utilize ideas from employees. They also have to show balance and control in facilitating free-flowing conversations.
Best Settings for Democratic Leadership
So, now that we know the upsides and downsides of being a democratic leader, let us sum up how to best use this knowledge to create a strategy that works for YOU.
Democratic leadership works best in situations where group members are skilled and eager to share their knowledge as well as receive plenty of feedback. It is also important to have plenty of time to allow people to contribute, develop a plan, and then vote on the best course of action. Democracy can easily work in smaller teams consisting of experts, but can work with larger and more junior teams as well, provided there is a lot of guidance from intelligent empathetic leaders.
When leading a group of people, remember that each situation may need a slightly different approach, and that it is good to embrace and learn more than one leadership style so that you can adapt to the situation at hand. Democratic leadership, however, is a very important tool in your toolbox. Let us conclude with a quote from Winston Churchill:
‘No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…’