Democratic leadership is a type of leadership where all members of a team contribute to making important decisions. In much the same way a democracy functions, the democratic leadership style seeks input from everyone, no matter their responsibilities or duties. A democratic leader wants others to voice their opinions. By getting the group collectively involved, the idea is that the best choices will be made as all perspectives are taken into account.
In the democratic leadership style, leaders strive to “let the people rule.” Also known as participative leadership or shared leadership, group members are encouraged to collaborate and help with the decision-making process. Rejecting traditional “top-down” organizational structures, leaders opt for providing opportunities that allow everyone to guide the company in the right direction.
As teams practice democratic leadership, they’ll get a greater sense of contributing to the organization’s goals. Everyone takes ownership, meaning they all have a stake in the outcome. In this way, democratic leaders help everyone on the team grow.
In this article, learn about what the democratic leadership style is, the benefits it provides, and when it might not be the most effective.
Characteristics of Democratic Leadership
A democratic leader is similar to a moderator in that they bring up concerns, issues, or potential decisions and facilitate a team discussion around these topics. They encourage open communication and create a safe environment where team members are free to express how they think and feel. Additionally, they foster a sense of team spirit by validating others’ points, building off of the group member’s ideas, and respectfully navigating conflict and disagreements when necessary. In doing so, they lead by example, while also establishing expectations for the team culture.
Other characteristics of the democratic leadership style include:
- Acts inquisitive: Democratic leadership means asking probing questions that gauge team members’ thoughts, feelings, and concerns.
- Welcomes new ideas: Democratic leaders encourage people to vocalize their opinions and creative solutions. They don’t care if the idea doesn’t come from them—they simply want the best ideas.
- Leads with fairness and impartiality: They allow for fair and equal opportunities for people to give insight and perspective.
- Is people-oriented: Democratic leadership is a type of leadership that seeks to connect with people. Leaders want to understand those around them, including what drives them to excel.
- Gives praise freely: Democratic leaders want to commend employees for their creativity, analytical thinking, and honesty. If there’s praise to give, they’re the first to do it.
- Facilitates conversations: Leaders don’t treat meetings like normal meetings, where one person presents while everyone else listens. Instead, they treat meetings like group discussions where everyone can participate.
- Works well with groups: Democratic leadership often involves breaking people up into small teams so they can work together on projects, problems, and other work. Leaders should work well with groups of all sizes.
- Accepts differences: Leaders who utilize the democratic leadership style never shame people for sharing a different perspective.
- Actively listens: Democratic leaders practice active listening by repeating back what the person is saying or asking clarifying questions. Their goal is to understand.
- Shuns authoritative rule: Leaders of this style stay away from autocratic leadership or leading with an iron fist. They reject that type of authority at every opportunity.
- Keeps the peace: When workplace conflict arises, a democratic leader works with all parties involved to come up with a solution that all sides agree with. They prioritize maintaining peace and harmony in their teams.
The Benefits of Democratic Leadership
1. Gives Everyone a Voice and Fair Credit
People don’t like to be left out of the decision-making process. Under democratic leadership, everyone gets a say. This has the added benefit of ensuring that different viewpoints are considered. With different perspectives in play, people feel more accountable and ready to take on responsibilities.
It also gives people credit when they deserve it. As President Dwight D. Eisenhower once said, “Leadership consists of nothing but taking responsibility for everything that goes wrong and giving your subordinates credit for everything that goes well.” Eisenhower knew the value of including many people to help with problem-solving, and he was quick to give others credit knowing their contributions. While he may have had the final decision most of the time, he always acknowledged the roles that others played in reaching those decisions.
2. More Engagement From Employees
Employees like to be involved, but all too often, they feel overlooked. Engagement can be a serious problem in many businesses. According to Gallup, only 35 percent of workers feel that they’re engaged in the workplace. Democratic leadership can change that trend and get people more engaged.
Democratic leadership is the type of leadership that helps everyone feel like they’re part of something. They feel as though their contributions matter, even at the smallest level. If you’re constantly asking for input, advice, and opinions from your team members, their level of engagement will steadily increase.
3. Increased Job Satisfaction
A show of appreciation, even a small gesture, can do wonders for an employee’s job satisfaction. Showing that you care and want to see them involved in making decisions will help employees feel appreciated, increasing their overall satisfaction with their jobs. Democratic leadership facilitates this effort.
In an article for Harvard Business Review, professors from Babson College describe the importance of creating a culture of appreciation. “At the end of the day,” they write, “building a culture of appreciation comes down mostly to a lot of small common sense practices: Not taking your people for granted. Remembering to say thank-you in a personal and sincere way. Making it clear that you’re interested in your employees’ growth and in them as individuals.” This can read as a description of the democratic leadership style as well.
4. Solves Conflicts More Quickly
A democratic leader will ensure that everyone feels welcome on the team. Even so, conflicts will arise from time to time. Under democratic leadership, you cannot only solve conflicts more quickly but experience fewer of them. The very nature of democratic leadership makes this possible since you encourage others to voice their opinions and share their thoughts.
As the Center for Creative Leadership advises, some of the most important steps to solving workplace conflicts are gaining a proper perspective of the situation and seeking agreement from everyone involved. Through the democratic leadership style, you bring everyone to the table and arrive at a solution all team members can accept. Without seeking input from all parties, you run the risk of the conflict getting out of control and leaving others dissatisfied.
5. More Innovation
Another aspect of democratic leadership that proves beneficial for businesses is that it allows for more ideas to be shared. From this variety of viewpoints and backgrounds, new solutions arise that likely wouldn’t see the light of day otherwise. As Walter Lippmann once put it, “When all think alike, then no one is thinking.”
Once again, democratic leadership proves effective because democratic leaders create environments where people can express themselves. They can do so without fear of looking foolish. These environments also accept failure without ridicule or repercussion, effectively removing the fear of failure. And once that fear is gone, more innovation can happen. Brené Brown expressed this thought in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, stating, “There is no innovation and creativity without failure. Period.”
- Democratic leadership gives others credit for successes.
- When only 35 percent of workers feel engaged, it increases their level of engagement.
- Getting everyone involved in decision-making increases job satisfaction.
- Democratic leadership takes in different viewpoints and helps resolve conflicts quickly.
- It removes the fear of failure, a necessary step to encourage innovation.
Potential Problems With Democratic Leadership
As with all leadership styles, you need to weigh the pros and cons of democratic leadership. While the points above demonstrate distinct advantages, there are potential problems it introduces as well. The following are some that you should be aware of.
- Produces the problem of “no one’s leading if everyone’s leading.”
- Wastes time when a quick and simple decision needs to be made.
- Leads to debate and conflict if employees don’t come to an agreement through reasoned discussion.
- Frustrates team members who feel the best decision isn’t being made, despite what the majority rules.
- Develops shame in people who continuously get shut down when presenting their thoughts, ideas, and feelings.
- Positions the work environment as a place where employees decide whether or not they want to fulfill the leader’s vision.
- Causes bad decisions if those in the group aren’t well-informed, knowledgeable, or qualified to make a good choice.
Overall, the democratic leadership style is effective. However, consider the timeframe decisions need to be made, who is involved in the decision-making process, and whether or not these people can reach a consensus in a reasonable amount of time. Otherwise, using this type of leadership might do more harm than good.
FAQ About Democratic Leadership
Why should leaders practice democratic leadership?
Democratic leadership ensures everyone has a say in important decision-making. This, in turn, leads to more innovation, increased job satisfaction, and more employee engagement. It also gives employees a greater feeling of ownership and teaches them to be more independent.
What is a democratic leader and how can you become a better one?
A democratic leader makes all team members feel welcome by valuing their opinions and letting them take part in the problem-solving process. To be a better democratic leader, develop plans that seek participation from others. Work with your team members to understand their goals and desires. Create spaces and times where people can express their opinions freely.
When is democratic leadership the most effective?
Democratic leadership is great in situations where you need multiple viewpoints to make good decisions. When you need multiple opinions that you can use to test new ideas, this leadership style excels. It’s also great for creative processes or feeling out new changes, especially when you’re looking to make people feel included and involved.
When should you not use the democratic leadership style?
There are times when you need to make a decision quickly. That’s one instance when democratic leadership might not be the best choice. This is also true for situations where having a lot of cooks in the kitchen can actually hurt the final outcome. Additionally, when the problem can be better solved by a small number of key stakeholders who have unique knowledge about the results you need, other styles may be better suited.
What are some examples of democratic leadership?
Here are three unique leaders who serve as great examples of democratic leadership:
President Lincoln took office understanding his decisions over the next four years would determine the fate of the United States. Not taking this responsibility lightly, he developed a cabinet of people who were equipped to help him make the best choices. He elevated many of his former political opponents into positions of power because he believed they could preserve the Union. During his presidency, he relied heavily on these people to help him make the best choices possible.
The children’s television network, Nickelodeon, would’ve never grown into the success it is today without its former president, Geraldine Laybourne. Rather than ruling with an iron fist, Laybourne fostered her team’s creativity and trusted their decision-making skills. In an interview with her alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, Laybourne explains there was “a lot of brainstorming with the entire company” and “talking about what’s working, what’s not.” One example of her democratic leadership skills was letting producer Vanessa Coffey decide which shows the network would develop. Coffey’s first picks were Rugrats, The Ren and Stimpy Show, and Doug, which became three of the most successful cartoons of all time.
Former CEO of PepsiCo Indra Nooyi practices many leadership styles. When using democratic leadership skills, she acts as an excellent listener, giving her team members the space to discuss their feedback, thoughts, ideas, and concerns. This helps inspire a team culture where people feel their leader considers them to be valuable assets. However, this does not mean employees dictate the future of the company. Nooyi knows the importance of being a strong visionary leader, and some things simply aren’t up for discussion. While she encourages participation, team members are aware she has the final decision.
Add to Your Leadership Skills With Other Leadership Styles
The democratic leadership style is great for many situations, but that doesn’t mean it’s always useful. Every person has a dominant leadership style, but you can supplement yours with another. Doing so helps you to become a better, more effective leader.
Don’t commit to one way of leading your team. Each person who serves a business has different needs, and you need to change up your approach depending on the situation. For example, the Hersey-Blanchard Situational Leadership® Model shows leaders are most effective when they lead in a way that fulfills each person in the group’s individualistic needs.
To learn more about Situational Leadership, read the following article:
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- “Democratic Leadership Style: Characteristics, Pros and Cons.” Villanova University. https://www.villanovau.com/resources/leadership/democratic-leadership-style/.
- Gallup, Inc. “How to Improve Employee Engagement in the Workplace.” Gallup, https://www.gallup.com/workplace/285674/improve-employee-engagement-workplace.aspx.
- Gibson, Kerry. “The Little Things That Make Employees Feel Appreciated.” Harvard Business Review, 23 Jan. 2020, https://hbr.org/2020/01/the-little-things-that-make-employees-feel-appreciated.
- 05/15/2013, Published. “The Wholehearted Life: Oprah Talks to Brené Brown.” Oprah.Com, 15 May 2013, https://www.oprah.com/spirit/brene-brown-interviewed-by-oprah-daring-greatly.
- Staff, L. E. (2022, August 9). 6 Tips for Leading Through Conflict. CCL. https://www.ccl.org/articles/leading-effectively-articles/calm-conflict-in-the-workplace/.
- “A Cable Pioneer’s Journey.” The Pennsylvania Gazette, 1 May 2004, https://thepenngazette.com/a-cable-pioneers-journey/.