Workplace democracy is the current buzz concept amongst forward thinking corporate management theorists. The idea behind the practice is that since most of us spend the majority of our lives at work, a sense of ownership and meaningful engagement in our professional lives is essential for our wellbeing, at both an individual and societal level. A democratic workplace is likely to be an innovative, competitive and dynamic organisation.
Haufe, the digital solutions and training provider, has earned itself the reputation of being at the cutting edge of workplace democracy, since it instituted the practice of holding elections to vote for its Chief Executive Officer and other senior positions four years ago. Normally, a CEO has to be chosen by a panel of high ranking staff within the organisation via an interview process. Haufe Group have pioneered a new method whereby candidates put their names forward three months in advance of an election date, and every member of staff within the company is given an equal vote.
Current CEO of Haufe USA, Kelly Max, was elected by his workforce in this way. Max is a keen proponent of involvement and inclusion in the workplace, and one of the hallmarks of his leadership style is his encouragement of the so-called “intrepreneur”. In Max’s company, staff are valued for their ability to step outside of traditional job boundaries and contribute towards innovative new solutions. In this way, the organisation can move forward from the ground up.
Such is the case for the democratic workplace model. However, the movement does have its detractors. Vivek Wadhwa, an academic and researcher in the field of technological innovation who holds fellowships at Stanford University amongst others in the US, has argued that the practice of electing company executives will lead to ineffective leadership. The people at the top will be too preoccupied with maintaining their popularity in order to be re-elected, so will be insufficiently focused on the needs of the company.
Another criticism commonly levelled at supporters of workplace democracy is that it creates fragmentation within an organisation, as so many conflicting voices need to be assimilated and taken into account. This, it is argued, reduces efficiency and makes the decision making process torturous and laborious. Organisations operating like this cannot respond to change and client demands in a timely manner.
Kelly Max responded to Wadhwa’s comments by explaining that in Haufe Group, not every decision is democratic. Although the leaders are elected, they are elected as decision makers. In other words, there is not a referendum on every single issue, much like democratic government. In response to the idea that inefficiency is a result of workplace democracy, Max has agreed that “it’s a time investment versus efficiency calculation”. However, he explains that although initially the process slowed things down, in the long run the democratic company is more efficient because employees are fully invested in their work.
Supporters of the democratic workplace movement believe that, especially for the younger generation who are accustomed to having a voice through social media, a sense of mutuality and meaningfulness at work will ensure they are truly on board with decisions made at the top. Even if employees disagree with an outcome, being fully involved in a decision making process can foster a sense of investment in the company and therefore drive the implementation of the work forward in a cooperative effort. Moreover, companies who value their staff will attract talented recruits, who will naturally enhance productivity.