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In the 21st century, democracy can help make companies more successful – it makes for a workplace in which employees are respected, included and consulted. (istockphoto)
In the 21st century, democracy can help make companies more successful – it makes for a workplace in which employees are respected, included and consulted. (istockphoto)

DAVID COWAN

Maybe your workplace should be a democracy Add to ...

David Cowan is a business dialogue coach and visiting scholar at Boston College. He is the author of Internal Communication: How to Build Employee Engagement and Performance.

Here’s a radical idea for Canadian companies: Create democracy in your workplace. I don’t mean introducing a voting system – I mean having open dialogue, and getting more meaningful input from employees.

Let’s look at the usual company dialogue.

Most employees at most companies hear the boss say “Our people are our No. 1 priority,” or “We can’t be successful without our people.” But such statements are often the first and last mention of “people” as the boss goes on to talk about financial goals, business targets and other priorities.

The point is that business leaders talk past their employees on a regular basis, and fail to have open and honest dialogue with their people. There are many reasons for this, but the primary ones include lack of trust or authentic respect, and suspicion. All too often, leaders regard their employees as people who need to be told things on a “need-to-know basis,” because they don’t really understand the complex decisions leaders need to make.

The reality is that most employees do understand, and are more trusting and trustworthy than leaders generally recognize. The point of engaging employees is not to spin the news or keep them happy by hiding troubles from them. If you want to make employees happy, pay them a lot more to work a lot less and you may achieve that.

A better approach is to have meaningful dialogue that shares the organization’s burdens rather than objectifying staff as part of the problem. Employees know their companies have difficulties to face, and will often understand what’s good for the company, even if it is bad news for them personally. But they’ll only “get it” if you explain it to them in a meaningful way.

In the 21st century, democracy can help make companies more successful – it makes for a workplace in which employees are respected, included and consulted. One where their views are heard, responded to, and even form part of the solution. This is the true power of the modern organization, where there is greater openness. It is only through open dialogue, rather than hierarchical communication, that leaders can unleash the power within their organizations.

Achieving this requires finding out what’s meaningful to employees in different parts of the company. This can only be done by understanding your internal audience, and by leaders seeing things from other points of view, because people in the company do see things differently and have different needs.

For example, positive financial figures are great, but how financial results are understood or made meaningful to a lathe worker versus a middle manager or chief executive officer can be radically different. Likewise, when the results are bad, everyone is affected differently. Such results need to be communicated to everyone.

Having effective dialogue requires leaders to show more respect for all employees, and it requires grasping the emotional impact any decision has on employees and acknowledging the impact. Engaging emotionally with employees is critical to successful dialogue within the organization. This may be a struggle for leaders used to communicating on the basis of their “position,” but leadership needs to be inspirational.

To be inspirational demands being open and listening, and I mean real listening, not paying lip-service to the idea in those “Our people are our No. 1 priority” speeches.

This is what real democracy looks like – mutual respect, understanding, open dialogue. As in political democracy, business leaders need to win hearts and minds – they need to cast off suspicions and doubts, and start having meaningful dialogue with their people.

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