Monday, December 17

Is democracy all it’s cracked up to be?

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The UK’s Brexit debate is about democracy as much as its relationship with Europe. It’s an important debate for workplaces too

If you were trying to get around central London last Saturday, you’d most likely have found 700,000 people getting in your way blocking the route from Park Lane to Parliament Square. The issue that caused this unprecedented turnout was Brexit – an inescapable one if you live in the UK and turn on the news or open a newspaper – and specifically the desire for a second referendum to approve or reject any deal negotiated with the European Union.

Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

Winston Churchill, 1947

The debate on Brexit has split the country, and it feels that, as much we are debating whether we should be part of the EU or not, we are also debating what democracy means, with specific questions such as:

  • Does a slim majority (52% in favour of leaving versus 48% remaining) mean the matter is settled, once and for all?
  • Did people know what they were voting for and should they have another go now that they are more informed?

and, more importantly…

  • What on earth has this got to do with customer-centricity?

Winston Churchill famously said that “democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time” but I feel that in the workplace most bosses only heard the first part of that sentence.

There’s an immense gain to be had from having a workforce that turns up to work feeling that what they do makes a difference and that translates directly into happier customers.

So why is it that most companies are run like tinpot dictatorships?

Disengaged

According to Gallup’s 2017 global workplace survey, “85% of employees are not engaged or actively disengaged at work” with an estimated impact or $7 trillion in lost productivity. So, the business impact should be clear even if we don’t consider customer satisfaction, which would add even more benefits on top of the productivity gains.

But if the economic argument is so blindingly obvious we’re clearly not buying it.

Why?

Control freak

Somewhere in our genetic make-up we’re hardwired to be selfish: sharing what you have achieved by hard work, guile or luck with people outside your family/tribal boundaries doesn’t come naturally to us. Business leaders and founders who have built something successful have an innate reluctance to share the fruits of their labours out of fear that others might spoil what they have created.

It takes a maverick to achieve something that goes against the grain. Enter Ricardo Semler, the archetypal maverick leader whose Brazilian engineering group Semco is one of the relatively few companies to be organised on principles of active worker participation and self-determination. With its flat hierarchy, self-determination, and peer-set salaries it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but there’s no denying it works: Semco is still in business and has evolved in the 25 years since Semler’s account of his approach “Maverick” was published – its evolution potentially attributable to its flexible, bottom-up approach.

More equal than others

Increased worker participation doesn’t automatically mean businesses should turn into workers’ cooperatives, but it wouldn’t do too much harm to adopt some of the principles to improve engagement. The John Lewis Partnership is hardly a bastion of socialism, but because the workforce consists of partners, everyone has a share in the success of the business. And it’s no coincidence that John Lewis has high levels of customer satisfaction and advocacy.

If you want to get your people more engaged, there are three things you need in place to increase the level of participation:

1. Articulate a compelling purpose

I can’t overstate the importance of a compelling purpose – your organisation’s why – to unite the organisation and give people a framework in which operate.

2. Change the conversation around leadership

This sounds like a big task but as a leader you can start to shift people’s perception of what being a leader means. If the history of the organisation means that a top-down, objective-driven style is prevalent, you’ll need to actively demonstrate and model a more participative approach and encourage those leaders elsewhere in the organisation who do the same.

3. Provide avenues for people to participate and bring more of themselves to work

We’ve outlined the Framework of Champions elsewhere on The Next Ten Years – once you introduce that you’re instantly raising the level of participation

Protest and survive

Dissenting workers (or members of the public) don’t tend to take to the streets until all other avenues have been exhausted. It’s blindingly obvious that social media now provides a platform for all and sundry to vent their opinions and whilst the manner in which people express those opinions may leave much to be desired, it doesn’t negate the importance of those views.

The challenge for leaders is to detect the conversations: I’m aware of many groups on Facebook for example where disgruntled private groups can express opinions about “the management”. Discovering these might require a degree of detective work – also known as talking to your employees – but, just as companies need to take seriously the feedback from customers on social media, the issues raised by employees are also important. Relying on the annual employee survey just won’t cut it in this day and age.

When people protest about something, it means they care deeply about it, so those who complain about their company aren’t just whingeing, they’re usually doing it because they have a view on something the company is or isn’t doing – and that view is important.

Keeping your ear to the ground and encouraging – polite – debate is as healthy for workplaces as it is for countries.

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About Author

Business strategist, consultant and change manager who helps companies become genuinely customer-centric. Nick delivers customer-driven business transformation projects and has worked across many industries including banking and finance, insurance, telecommunications, industrial and public sector. Has held senior roles with variety of blue chip names including BT, Royal Bank of Scotland, CSC and Sema Group. Currently Head of Delivery at NextTen Innovation Solutions

1 Comment

  1. We do not have democracy in the UK. What we have is parliamentary democracy, whereby you get to vote once every five years for a person to represent you in parliament and they can then vote any way that they choose during that period. When candidates stand for election most stand on the manifesto of their party. I like seven out of the top ten items from one manifesto, six out of ten of another and four out of ten from the third. As a result, I never get a representative who represents all of my views. Switzerland has the nearest to a true democracy, whereby any important issue can be raised in a referendum and is binding to parliament if the majority vote for it. Germany has a better system than ours, which was introduced after the second world war by the British. There are 500 seats in parliament. 400 are contested in the same way as in Britain. However, the total votes for each party are then analysed and a further 100 candidates from party lists are appointed to bring the number of representatives in parliament to match the percentage of votes that they received throughout the country.

    With regard to the referendum, 37.5% of the voting population voted to remain, 41.5% voted to leave and 18% did not vote. It has been a tradition in the UK for 200 years that if you do not vote, you agree to accept the majority decision of those that do vote. As a result, 62.5% of the electorate chose to leave the EU directly or indirectly. I get very annoyed at the remainers using the 52/48 statistic. They should read the Daryl Huff book – How to Lie with Statistics.

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