Just the name democratic sounds good doesn’t it? By spending time getting people’s ideas and buy-in, a leader can build trust, re spect, and commitment. By letting followers have a say in decisions that affect their goals and how they do their work, the democratic leader drives tends to build flexibility and responsibility. And by lis tening to employees’ concerns, the democratic leader learns what to do to keep morale high. Finally, because they have a say in setting their goals and the standards for evaluating success, people operating in a democratic system tend to be very realistic about what can and cannot be accomplished.
The democratic style builds on teamwork and collaboration, conflict management, and influence. Great communicators are great listeners – and listening is the key strength of the democratic style. These leaders create the sense that they truly want o hear employee’s thoughts and concerns. The democratic/consensus leader are also collaborators – often seeing themselves as an equal on the team rather than a top down, chain of command leaders. Good democratic/consensus leaders must be very patient or else lose credibility for being genuinely interested in hearing from others.
The democratic/consensus style generally has a place in combination with other leadership styles. Even the best visionary leader who is positive as to the best course of action would do well to use consensus building to build buy-in for his ideas, to use it as a tool to identify potential weaknesses with the plan to move forward, and very importantly, to determine how to frame his ideas such that his followers will be most receptive to them.
This approach can also be useful when a leader is uncertain about the best direction to take and needs ideas and guidance from followers.
The democratic style, of course, makes much less sense when employees are not competent or informed enough to offer sound advice.
And I hope it goes without saying that building consensus is wrongheaded in times of crisis. It is exactly this approach that magnified events at TEPCO’s Fukushima Dai-ichi. Consensus building is the hallmark of Japanese culture. Japanese work to twenty year and fifty year corporate plans and every at every level of the organization has had input before they moved forward. It is an enormously tiring process to those unskilled in the art, and it frustrates westerners who often perceive consensus building as resistance – as opposed to relationship building.
The democratic style, like all the others, has serious drawbacks when used inappropriately. One of its more exasperat ing consequences can be endless meetings where ideas are mulled over, consensus remains elusive, and the only visible result is scheduling more meet ings. Specifically, many democratic leaders use the style to put off making actual decisions, and their people end up feeling confused and leaderless. Such an approach often escalates conflicts.
So, where do empathy and intent play into things? Without empathy, they leader will make no emotional connection with followers – and therefore neither draw out the options and thoughts of the followers – nor truly hear what they are saying. And so decisions based in such input will not reflect the true input of the followers and will consequently create frustration and rebellion.
As to intent, the most common failing I have seen is leaders who go through the consensus building phase with no intention of acting on the information gained – they already know all the answers. The net result is the same as for the empathically devoid leader. These people have learned the power of consensus but fail to realize that followers won’t feel heard without some reflection of their thoughts in the leaders’ actions.
Evolutionarily speaking, the democratic style has been wired into us for good reason. Followers and leaders alike were motivated to cooperate in decision making. On the savannah, the biggest threat was obtaining enough food and avoiding predators. If the group made a wrong decision as to how to invest limited resources for hunting and gathering food, the group perished. In this environment, more brain power applied to a problem often resulted in a better outcome.