Should We have Democracy in the Workplace?




Democracy is a great thing, isn’t it?  In less than a week Canadians will go to the polls to vote for the person they hate the least. (You ARE going, aren’t you?)  Since I have already voted in an advanced poll (and thus am perfectly free to now completely disregard all political advertising) I thought I would share some thoughts on this topic.  And yes, I know,you may have to choosse between the Jays and your country’s future.  What  to do, what do to?


My intent in writing this weekly column has been to reflect on what goes on in business so I have not made this column a political column (at least overtly).  But I cannot refrain from posing an important question that all of you who are still in the paid labour force and I invite you to ask yourselves this:  If Democracy is good enough to run our country, why isn’t it good enough to run our businesses?  If we can run a country (and at the same time firmly believe that this is the best way to run a country, then why we do accept monarchies (or as they are more commonly called, Family owned businesses) or dictatorships (called Corporations)?


But, you splutter, publically traded corporations are democracies.  Their Board of Directors are elected by the shareholders, and represent the interests of the shareholders – just as Members of Parliament do. So, ever try to arrange to have a meeting with a Board member of large corporation and express your point of view?   I think (for the most part although I’m sure there must be one or two exceptions) that this type of democracy is much like the one we use to see in Russia where everyone could vote but there was only one party that was allowed to field candidates.  Governments do not ask us what we want – they tell us what they want to do.  Companies don’t ask their shareholders what they want; they tell them what they are going to do.


Companies (and Government departments) are still run by the person(s) at the top who appoints the next level, who appoints the next level, and so on until we reach the level of summer intern who has no authority or credibility at all.  It really is closer in structure to a feudal monarchy and really lays bare what the people at the top think of the people at the bottom of the hierarchy.  Not only did Kings believe that they were divinely appointed by God to rule but also believed that only a certain class of people had the intelligence to understand what was going on, and that class was not comprised of labourers or peasants (or women).  They did, occasionally, listen to the Priestly caste (today they are called lawyers) but the consultation was largely to find out how they might get around rules they didn’t like. Think of Henry VIII who kept his priests working at trying to find a biblical interpretation that would justify taking a new wife while the old one was still around.


Perhaps we should just be intellectually honest and admit that Organizations are nothing but individual little kingdoms with a ruler (wise or not) or else an oligarchy run by a few people with money.  And while democracy has its supporters in the life of a country, it has no one to speak its virtue in the marketplace.  Why is that?  Surely the fate of any company is important (although perhaps not as important than the fate of our country?  Surely the prosperity of our economy is as important as the prosperity of our nation?


Now I am far from the first to question whether there might not be a better way of running our organizations.  Many Unions will claim that they are (in contrast to their employer) the only truly democratic part of the company.  Semco, a Brazilian light manufacturing company is based on democratic principles and has been hugely successful, so it’s not as if this is impossible to achieve.  Before you dismiss the whole notion out of hand, let me ask you to consider the following questions:

  1. How would you like to have a meaningful voice in selecting your manager?
  2. How would you like to have a meaningful impact in the policies and rules that govern employee and manager behaviour?
  3. How would you like to be able to create a job that you liked to do and that helped the company achieve its objectives?


Charles Butowski wrote:  “The difference between a democracy and a dictatorship is that in a democracy you vote first and take orders later; in a dictatorship you don’t have to waste your time voting.”  Sound pretty much like all organizations that I know of.


I suspect, however, that because of the failings in our political democracy, this process will never be brought to life in corporations.   We are confronted daily with a virulent strain of anti-intellectualism which means, according to Isaac Asimov that  “Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’”  He probably read H. L. Mencken, (Notes on Democracy): “Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance. No one in this world, so far as I know—and I have researched the records for years, and employed agents to help me—has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.”  But the main reason why we have democratic failure is captured by Mark Twain when he said:   “If voting made any difference they wouldn’t let us do it.”


Despite this cynical musing, get out there and vote, because the result is determined by those who show up to vote.




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