Democratic leadership, or participative leadership, is a leadership style that places high value on group participation and collaboration. Furthermore, the thoughts, beliefs, and opinions of individuals led by a democratic leader heavily influence the organizational decision making process. This makes participants feel valued, heard, recognized, and acknowledged for their contributions.
It’s one of the best leadership styles to use because it creates emotional fulfillment in those being led. Executives who use the democratic leadership style boost morale, spark inspiration, and stimulate creativity. In a group setting, motivating followers in this manner creates productive, innovative, impact-driven teams. As a result, they produce positive outcomes and fulfill the business’s top objectives.
Start reaping the benefits of this leadership style, learn more about what it is, the characteristics of a democratic leader, the pros and cons of democratic leadership, examples of it in action, and how to start practicing democratic leadership.
What is the Democratic Leadership Style?
The democratic leadership style gives each person in a group a voice in determining how their company functions. While the leader of the business has the power to make final decisions, they consult with their team to make choices that are in sync with what the majority of others want or desire. For example, this might look like voting on the top initiatives for each quarter or allowing each individual on the team time to discuss how they think the team should best tackle a big project.
Additionally, democratic leaders are the opposite of autocratic leaders who operate using traditional “top-down” hierarchical organizational structures. Those practicing the democratic leadership style don’t need to be “in charge” to lead. They feel secure in sharing their power and letting everyone have the opportunity to lead the company in the right direction.
Top Traits of a Democratic Leader
Democratic leaders are similar to moderators 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 people 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 democratic leadership include:
- Asking probing questions that gauge team member’s thoughts, feelings, and concerns
- Encouraging people to vocalize their opinions
- Allowing fair and equal opportunities for people to give their insight or perspective
- Commending employees for their creativity, analytical thinking, and honesty
- Treating meetings like group discussions
- Breaking people up into small teams so they can work together on projects, problems, and other work that needs to be done
- Never shaming people for sharing their ideas
- Practicing active listening by repeating back what the person is saying or asking clarifying questions
The Advantages and Disadvantages of Democratic Leadership
While democratic leadership might sound like the perfect leadership style, leaders shouldn’t commit to one way of leading their team. This is because each person who serves a business has different needs. 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. Find out the particular situations democratic leadership is effective and also ineffective below.
Pros of Using the Democratic Leadership Style
- Helps companies innovate by brainstorming creative ideas
- Acts as an agent of team-building
- Makes team members feel like their leaders truly value and recognize their contributions, which increases their dedication and resolve
- Increases engagement and commitment levels resulting in greater employee retention rates
- Enhances quality of work since people feel more emotionally invested in the process of setting and reaching goals
- Reduces workplace conflict by implementing a sense of team spirit
- Teaches employees how to be independent so they don’t rely solely on the leader to problem-solve and decision-make
- Creates opportunities for shared responsibility so no one person feels overworked to the point of work burnout
- Helps teams practice accountability because they’re more likely to take ownership over something they’ve had a part in developing
Cons of Using the Democratic Leadership Style
- 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 aren’t in agreement with one another
- 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.
Democratic Leadership Examples
Many famous leaders use the democratic leadership style to increase their influence and gain followers. From politicians like John F. Kennedy to civil rights leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, people from all walks of life have implemented the democratic leadership style characteristics into how they effectively guide others. To find distinct examples of what this type of leadership looks like in action, check out the list below.
President Lincoln took office knowing 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. He was well-known for his even-temper and ability to navigate conflict. As he stated, “When I have friends who disagree with each other, I am very slow to take sides in their quarrel.”
The children’s television network, Nickelodeon, would’ve never grown into the success it is today with 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.
While many people consider Jack Dorsey, the CEO and co-founder of Twitter, a leader who favors a laissez-faire leadership style, he also demonstrates traits from the democratic leadership style. Dorsey doesn’t want to be in charge of decision making, stating: “I definitely see the organization and the people in it as the ones to make the decisions, because they have the greatest context for what needs to be done.” Yet, Dorsey wants to make sure he’s growing leaders within the business who can make great choices and lead the company in the right direction. Each week, he blocks off time for leadership development meetings and individual one-on-ones. He also views Twitter as a democracy where individual users collaborate, which is what makes the platform an engaging, entertaining success.
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 a valuable asset. However, this does not mean employees dictate the future of the company. Nooyi knows the importance of being a strong visionary leader, and some decisions simply aren’t up for discussion. While she encourages participation, team members are aware she has the final say in decision making.
How to Effectively Use the Democratic Leadership Style
So, how does a person become a democratic leader like those referenced above? Truthfully, mastering the characteristics of this leadership style requires practice, dedication, and consistent action. Learn how to start implementing these traits by following the tips below.
Develop a Plan for When to Use Democratic Leadership
As previously mentioned, the democratic leadership style isn’t appropriate for every situation in business. Establishing a visualization practice helps leaders make informed decisions about whether or not this particular leadership style will produce positive or negative outcomes. Additionally, outlining when and how to use this leadership style helps leaders establish a game plan for using it as an effective leadership tool.
To do this, answer the following questions:
- When would using this leadership style benefit the organization? Why?
- How can you structure the agendas for meetings to include components of democratic leadership? For example, this might look like including 30 minutes dedicated toward team discussion.
- How will executives and managers handle conflict and disagreements?
- When should a leader step in and make a decision?
Engage with Team Members
Showing team members you’re invested in them is one of the keys to building relationships in the workplace. This is one thing democratic leaders do best. They spend time with group members on a collective and individual level and make employees a part of the decision making and goal-setting processes. Doing this keeps people engaged, which is a large part of developing stronger bonds.
To build better connections at work:
- Inquire about team members’ long-term goals and dreams.
- Co-write a plan for making these objectives a reality. For example, if a person wants to eventually become the company’s next art director, let them know how to achieve this endeavor.
- Work on developing leadership skills in others. This might look like giving a 20-minute group lesson on leadership each week.
- Give specific praise and recognition to those who contribute during team meetings. For instance, identify great ideas, creative thinking, and valid concerns.
- Encourage collaboration through team-building exercises like breaking into groups to ideate, problem-solve, or take on new challenges together.
Set Meetings Dedicated to Brainstorming Creative Ideas
Democratic leaders produce great ideas, overcome issues within the business, and innovate their industries in unique ways by brainstorming. Airbnb is one company that uses this strategic tool to its advantage. For example, during a brainstorming session, their team developed the “11-star experience.” Their goal was to expand upon the normal 5-star experience. The final result was a set of engaging guidelines that communicated customer expectations. In turn, this helped homeowners ideate around how to elevate their renters’ stays. As a result, the company as a whole created a better customer experience and higher ratings.
To conduct your own brainstorming sessions that produce positive results:
- Brief the team on what the mission of the brainstorming session is.
- Provide any needed context such as client needs, obstacles, budgeting, or the potential for future problems.
- Present a challenge. This might look like saying, “Get together in groups of two and come up with three ideas for a social media campaign that increases sales without going over budget.”
- Make the environment fun, but keep it professional, too. For instance, if meeting in-office, provide snacks, drinks, whiteboards, poster boards, and markers. This event can also be hosted off-site like at a park or coffee shop. If leading remote teams, let workers decide how they want to spend their day brainstorming before everyone meets back up to discuss their ideas. Encourage employees to get outside, go to the pool, or do whatever they need to do in order to produce their best ideas.
Practice Other Leadership Styles to Become Well-Rounded
Great leaders carry a set of multi-dimensional leadership qualities and skills that help them effectively guide those in their care. With that being said, democratic leadership only covers a small portion of the traits a leader needs to develop and grow their organizations and those within them. A leader who marries themselves to only practicing this style will experience some success. However, they will not be equipped to handle all of the various situations, personalities, setbacks, and obstacles that businesses face. This is because it is only one of seven different leadership styles a person in an executive-level position needs to learn and master. For more information on each of these, check out the article listed below.