By Sarah LaFon
Borrowman Baker, LLC, BV Staffing + Consulting
Gallatin, TN

Imagine this: you are the pilot of a Boeing 747 making a flight from Chicago to New York. About a half-hour out from your destination, you hit terrible turbulence and then an engine starts to fail. At this point, you naturally send the flight attendants around to the passengers to take a vote on the best way to handle the plane’s mechanical failings and get the flight back on track. Say what?!

No, obviously you are going to use your knowledge, training, and expertise to steer the plane in for landing and advise the passengers to buckle up and hang tight – no input required! This situation is obviously not one that calls for democracy. Similarly, there will be occasions as a BV practice leader that call for you to take the helm and make executive decisions without input or interference.

However, the standard command-and-control system for handling business decisions is becoming more out-of-date, as business leaders are beginning to understand that a more democratic workplace is the approach of the future.

So, what exactly is workplace democracy?

The anarchist thinker Pierre-Joseph Proudhon first introduced the concept of workplace democracy in “What is Property? Or an Inquiry into the Principle of Right and of the Government”. His argument was that management “must be chosen from the workers by the workers themselves, and must fulfil the conditions of eligibility.” In the 20th century, Belgian advocates of syndicalism helped promote workplace democracy by asserting that workers “had more knowledge but less control of the workplace than they had of major political decisions” (where they at least had a vote and the right to be heard). Have these notions translated into modern day advancements in business practices? Well, most businesses still operate under a top-down management system where a small group of executives will make decisions for the entire organization. But some businesses have started making the commitment to letting employees have a say in how things get done, and the results have been inarguably stellar.

David Packard, co-founder of a tiny little company called HP (sarcasm alert!), stated that “The purpose of a company is not to make money; it makes money in order to be able to do what it’s really all about. And in our case, that’s to make a contribution.” At the time, his statement was considered laughable. No one would laugh anymore.

Other companies have started adopting a similar modus operandi. Consultancy company WorldBlu, releases an annual list of companies that are committed to gathering employee-input on how their company operates. The operating definition of workplace democracy doesn’t necessarily mean that all employees vote on every decision. But, the idea involves management that confers more individual power to employees.

Heiko Fischer points out in a TEDx talk that “There needs to be a balance between making a profit, but also making a meaningful contribution. The currency of the future is development, not just of products, but development of organizational culture.” It is completely natural to want to out-perform our competitors, but Heiko notes that “Survival of the Fittest” is not an accurate interpretation of Darwin’s work, nor is it applicable to business practices. The theory is actually centered around the concept of “the species best able to collaborate and adapt to its environment”. Collaboration and adaptation are more important than outright dominance. And collaboration involves teamwork and innovation, both best accomplished with maximum input from employees.

Practically-speaking, what does this look like? Companies have started ceding control to employees in a variety of ways. Motek employees vote on how to allocate money for benefits; DaVita empowers facility management of its dialysis clinics to individual managers; 1-800-Got-Junk holds monthly town hall meetings; DreamHost employees elect a ‘Values Squad’ to regularly discuss culture and democracy in action.

Some companies employ a peer-appraisal system, where workers give credit to their fellow employees for exceptional work. These are but a few of the examples of how companies are encouraging their employees to speak freely and provide meaningful input into how their work is done. Consider evaluating your BV practice for ways in which your staff can have an impact on the direction of the company. Forming small teams to brainstorm and discuss new ideas is a good start.

The race to employ top BV talent can be quite competitive. In order to get the best talent, recognize that top candidates will gravitate towards companies where they are given a freer environment. In a business that involves a lot of counting numbers, it is important not to make BV staff members feel like a number.

They are – first and foremost – human beings, with incredible imaginations, dreams, and a natural internal motivation to do something that matters – to make a meaningful impact on the world around them. A BV staff member who is taken seriously, whose opinion counts, and who feels valued and integral to the workplace is a staff member who is unlikely to leave.

Sarah Lafon
Sarah LaFon