Your Company Is Not a Democracy
November 14, 2017

Your Company Is Not a Democracy

by Brian de Haaff

We are living in unsettling times. In 2016, you may have found yourself saying “What?!” out loud a lot. And I am betting that this year your knee-jerk response has become, “Now what?” But uncertainty in the world is nothing new. And it definitely is no stranger to business.

As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus wrote, “Everything changes and nothing stands still.” Resilient people and organizations learn to focus on what they control. These leaders choose to be great even in the face of chaos. But this is not easy.

Tough decisions are rarely obvious. The best leaders understand and own that responsibility. I myself take those challenging decisions seriously. I immerse myself in what is known and explore every possible direction. I seek out those who know more about the subject than I do. This approach gives me comfort. Because even if the final decision is proven wrong, I put in the effort to get it right.

But I know that many leaders do things differently. So, I recently asked folks on LinkedIn to share their experiences. How did their teams make big decisions? The answers varied. Some said somewhat haphazardly, with no one wanting to make the “big call.” Others said that a 100 percent consensus is ideal but ultimately impossible. And there were a surprising amount of people who said that the solution was a team vote.

It got me thinking. Of course you want everyone to have a voice, but can a company really function as a democracy?

Striving towards majority rule is not a quick or easy process. Earlier in my career, I experienced it firsthand and nothing meaningful got accomplished. Alignment meetings turned into hours-long conversations because one or two people were “just not convinced.” Sometimes the talks turned hostile as voting fractions formed. Businesses are not democracies — unless you are on the board, there should be no votes to cast. It only stalls progress in a dynamic work environment.

Over the years, companies have tried different tactics that are aligned with a “democratic approach.” (Including the controversial Holacracy method, which attempts to move authority and decision-making to distributed self-organizing teams, rather than being vested in a management hierarchy.)

But this kind of distribution of power is rarely sustainable. The content platform Medium, for example, abandoned the practice of self-organizing teams after a few years because “it was difficult to coordinate efforts at scale.” That seems like an obvious outcome in retrospect.

The simple truth is that not everyone in a company can hold the same level of decision-making power.

And the levels of power vary greatly depending on the industry and business structure. But it is worth pointing out that everyone in a company does hold the same core human value and deserves respect regardless of their role or tenure.

It helps if everyone in the company can articulate the mission — the essence of why the business exists and the value it delivers to customers beyond the specific products that are sold. This makes rallying the team around those meaningful decisions a bit easier.

So now the question becomes: How do you make everyone feel equally invested in the direction and success of a major decision when not everyone gets a vote?

Here is how:

Set clear goals You need to clearly share the goals that are related to what you are leading — whether that is a company, product, or project. And you need to make it clear that every idea and decision is being evaluated against those goals. Constantly ask the team, “How will this idea or action help us accomplish our goals?”

Listen deeply When you ask probing questions, you also need to listen. Use this as an opportunity to tease out what people really want or what the problem is that they are trying to solve. You likely have greater visibility across the organization based on your role. As a leader, it is your job to make those connections that others might not see.

Honor the best ideas People should be able to trust that you always have the best interests of the team and company in mind. A great idea is a great idea, no matter where it comes from. The best ideas will basically vote for themselves — it will be clear which ones will help you solve thorny problems and help you reach your goals.

Be open to change This one is the hardest. It is tough as a leader to acknowledge when you are wrong. And changing course should not be a regular occurrence. You must be firm in your decisions, but you cannot be inflexible when new information suggests you are headed astray. Because invariably, you will keep learning and seeing patterns that will reveal a better way forward. If this happens, make sure everyone understands why you are adapting and how it will help reach your goals.

For company leaders, the greatest form of decision-making is a deep sense of responsibility, respect for diverse ideas, and then choosing a path based on the best information available.

We live in uncertain times. But great leaders see that as an opportunity to step forward and to make wise decisions based on what they know and what they have learned.

How do you make people feel invested in your decisions at work?

Brian de Haaff

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability and The Startup Adventure newsletter. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the journey of pursuing a meaningful life.

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