Why Should Workplaces Be More Democratic?
A thought experiment
TLDR: Why should workplaces, or other organizations we are a part of, become more democratic? This post adapts different justifications for political democracy to workplaces.
Background: The online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has been around, as long as there has been an “online.” I remember using in college in the early 21st century, and I returned to it again in preparing to teach a course on democracy.
As I was reading the SEP entry on Democracy, it occurred to me that some of the justifications of political democracy might also serve as justifications for workplace democracy.
The authors break down the justifications for democracy into two categories:
Instrumental justifications look at the outcomes of democracy relative to other systems of government. They include:
Greater responsiveness. Democracies are more responsive to the needs of their citizens.
Better policies. Democracies produce better policies, by taking advantage of the (cognitive) diversity of its citizens, and by surfacing more information from them.
Better people. Democracies make their citizens more autonomous, rational, motivated, and moral.
Intrinsic justifications point to the principles that democracy upholds better than other forms of government, including:
Liberty. Democracies do a better job of protecting liberties (life, liberty, property)
Public justification. As my grandfather would say, I will need to study this more, but the thrust of this seems to be that it is inherently good that people have access to the reasoning behind the rules that govern their lives.
Equality. Democracies offer the best path to making sure that citizens are treated equally, and of giving individuals the sense of being treated equally. It also involves less coercion and violence than other systems.
Justifying More Democratic Workplaces
Each of these justifications has merit, however, and each is worth considering as a potential justification for workplace democracy. Let’s take a look:
Instrumental justifications (reasons democratic workplaces might lead to better business outcomes)
Greater responsiveness. Democratic workplaces might be more responsive to the needs and concerns of their employees. Managers might have more incentive to listen and be accountable.
Better policies. Democratic workplaces might make better decisions by tapping into the diverse perspectives and local knowledge of employees. They may also elicit more engagement and initiative from staff.
Better people. Democratic workplaces could foster more autonomous, empowered, and fulfilled employees by giving them voice and agency.
Intrinsic justifications (reasons democratic workplaces might just be better places to work)
Liberty. Democratic workplaces might give employees say over the rules governing their work, where they spend half of their working days.
Public justification. Workplaces that require leaders to publicly explain their decisions rather than handing down orders might reorient the relationship employees have with their employers.
Equality. More democratic workplaces might foster a sense of dignity in employees, even if they still report up through hierarchies.
I find it difficult, even in parsing this out, not to instrumentalist those intrinsic justifications. Maybe that’s OK: even those intrinsic justifications, which are better just for their own sake, could also make a company more successful by making them better places to work, leading to less turnover and better performance.
Some of these points have already been argued by other scholars, of course—perhaps in a future post I'll put together the kind of annotated bibliography that I expect from my students!