Democratic leadership style: What it is and why it's the best in 2021

Democratic leadership style: What it is and why it's the best in 2021

A democratic leadership style engages the entire team in brainstorming and decision-making processes.

If you’re looking to be the type of leader who creates a team where employees are passionate and innovative in their work while producing solid results, a democratic leadership style might be the first step to get there. 

Of course, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to leading others, but a democratic style of leadership has shown to be effective in motivating teams and coming up with creative solutions. 

If you don’t think your leadership style affects your direct reports or the business, think again. Leaders interact daily with their employees and have the ability to make decisions that can directly impact the greater organization. Research has even shown that profits can double when a company has great leaders.

Before we get into the details of what a democractic leadership style is and how it can help you lead your team, let’s take a look at the extent to which leaders have an impact on employees and their organization: 

  • Most people rate their organizations' overall leadership skills at 6 or lower on the 10-point scale. [1]
  • Only 28% say their managers are skilled at fostering engagement. [1]
  • Employees report only 26% of leaders are rated highly in responding well to feedback or new ideas. [1]
  • Trust in leaders is the highest-ranked link to employee engagement at 77%. It’s even higher than traditional motivators like organizational culture or opportunities for career growth. [2]
  • 79% of employees who highly trust their companies feel more motivated to work for them. [3]
  • In many organizations, ambiguity surrounding who is responsible for making a decision is a primary cause of delay in the decision-making process. [4]
  • Organizations with greater clarity about both the identity of its decision-makers and the outcomes of the decisions made experience better results. [4]
  • 79% of business leaders believe that an organization’s purpose is central to business success, yet 68% said that purpose is not used as a guidepost in leadership decision-making processes within their organization. [5]
  • Democratic leadership has been shown to have a positive impact on organizational performance. [6]

So, what is a democratic leadership style?

As the name suggests, a leader who uses a democratic leadership style actively involves their team in making decisions and gathers their input on how they’d like to be led. 

Many developed nations’ governments, such as the United States or United Kingdom, are led with some form of a democratic leadership style, using elections and represented officials to determine what the people want. This leadership style is also sometimes referred to as participative leadership.

Democratic leaders love to work collaboratively since they believe stronger decisions are made when everyone contributes. These leaders will usually facilitate a conversation and encourage all group members to share their thoughts and ideas. Then, the leader will consider those contributions, make a final decision, and communicate the outcome to the team. 

The pros and cons of democratic leadership

Of course, there are benefits and disadvantages to implementing a democratic leadership style, and usually the best leaders will use a variety of approaches to lead their team effectively. Here are some of the key pros and cons to be aware of if you want to lead your team in this way.

Pros

  • Increases engagement: When employees feel like they have a voice, it boosts engagement and can even motivate them in their work. Research backs this up. If group members are fully-involved in projects or decisions, they will feel more committed and invested in the end results.
  • Promotes new and creative ideas: More people contributing their thoughts leads to out-of-the box thinking and, ultimately, better solutions. Groups can provide multiple perspectives on topics and find an answer that benefits the largest number of people. If problems arise, the group can easily adapt to a new way of working since there are plenty of back-up ideas.
  • Supports an inclusive culture: Democractic leadership means everyone has a seat at the table. This can help employees feel included and like they belong, when they might not feel that way or experience discrimination in other situations. Additionally, democratizing work and decisions allows people to take on tasks based on talents and skills so the best work is produced efficiently.
  • Builds trust and stronger relationships: When leaders consult their teams and ask for help in making a decision, it can be empowering. This shows employees that they have their manager’s trust and their thoughts are valued. 

Cons

  • Draws out the decision-making process: Sometimes, more opinions and ideas can lead to groups talking in circles. If a quick decision needs to be made, asking everyone for input is probably not the best move since it may take a while for the group to reach an agreement. To avoid this, try giving your team a deadline for when a decision needs to be made. 
  • Adds more complexity: Along the same lines, input from all group members can lead to conflicting opinions, which can be difficult to navigate. People can become focused on small issues that aren’t relevant to the task at hand, which can distract from the group’s overall goal. Democratic leadership can also put leaders in tricky situations when members on the team feel frustrated that the group didn’t consider or choose their ideas. 
  • Widens the potential for error: With more people weighing in on decisions, there’s more opportunity to make mistakes. Team members might not have the necessary level of know-how to confidently chime in on certain topics. Leaders typically have more experience or knowledge in their field, so for decisions that would benefit from additional insight, it’s better for a leader to have the final say in a decision.  

Should you implement a democratic leadership style?

The best answer is … sometimes. Leadership looks different for everyone and different approaches are required for different situations and team dynamics. 

If you’re wondering if you have what it takes to lead with democratic leadership, you can take the F4S assessment to see if you have any of the following motivations high on your list: 

  • Affiliation
  • External reference
  • People
  • Shared responsibility

People who score highly on these motivations typically find a democratic leadership style to be an easier and far more natural approach. 

Highly-effective leaders also understand that relationships are key, and to lead with a democratic leadership style, team dynamics are especially critical. 

Before opening up the floor to ask for your team’s input on a decision, consider whether the people you consult with would be willing to participate or have the experience to provide helpful insight. If your team is particularly competitive or aren’t the most informed on the subject, it could be difficult to avoid hurt feelings or find a productive solution.

Examples of when to use democratic leadership

Another consideration to decide if democratic leadership is right for you is if the situation would benefit from your team’s additional input. There are situations where sometimes less is more when it comes to decision-making. 

Let’s look at some settings where a democratic leadership style works best, as well as specific approaches you can use to implement this style in your day-to-day work.

When you need to brainstorm new ideas...

If you’re looking for a fresh way to tackle an issue, it can help to have multiple people bouncing ideas off of one another. Not every suggestion has to be the best idea, but more thoughts and perspectives can help you find a solution that will benefit the largest spectrum of people. Plus, your team will appreciate that you brought them into the conversation and that you value their opinions.

How to use a democratic leadership style

Let’s say you need to propose a name for a new product your company is launching. You want to ask your team for their creative ideas, so you tell everyone to come to a brainstorm meeting tomorrow with three to five potential names. At the meeting, everyone shares their ideas and the list of names are put to a vote. The name that receives the most votes is the recommendation you bring forward to your company’s leadership.

When you need input on how a decision would affect lower-level employees...

Sometimes leaders get so caught up in the broad picture of the business, they can’t clearly see how decisions affect their team and other lower-level employees. 

Using a democratic style of leadership, you can involve the non-leaders of the organization in sharing their feedback on potential initiatives or current workstreams. Not only will people be impressed that you consider their opinions, but you can also hear firsthand how big-picture decisions will impact employees’ daily lives and work. 

How to use a democratic leadership style

You and other company leaders are trying to decide if the company should continue to work 100% remotely even when the COVID-19 pandemic is no longer a threat. To help you form an opinion, you go to your team and ask how employees would feel working 100% remotely and if anyone has concerns. 

After consulting with your team, you realize that many employees are frustrated with their makeshift home offices and are concerned about no longer having the company-provided equipment. In the discussion with leaders, you propose the company provide funds for people to purchase office equipment if the business goes fully remote due to the concerns you heard on your team.

When you need your team’s technical expertise...

Leaders can’t be experts in everything and usually don’t spend too much of their day-to-day doing technical work. If a decision needs to be made that would affect the team’s work or have technical implications, bring them into the conversation to help you see the full picture and translate any technical jargon. 

This will help them feel like they have a stake in the decision-making process and could help you identify new solutions that might have gone over your head. 

How to use a democratic leadership style

You would like to start using a new, more user-friendly system for managing your customer information. 

In the vetting process for a new system, you include your technical employees and employees who currently input customer information. They attend the system demos with you so they can ask questions about the technology and explain how it will interact with current software to help you understand the lift needed to implement each potential system. Then, you ask their opinion on which system they would prefer to help you make your own final decision.

The best way to develop a skill is to start

The above scenarios are the best places to start implementing democratic leadership, but each situation may call for a different variation that best engages your team or solves the problem. That means sometimes you’ll need to improvise and act however you see best in the moment (something known as situational leadership).

Even if you show an affinity for this style, leadership is a skill that needs to be practiced and refined to improve. You may make mistakes, but each experience is a learning opportunity for you to grow as a leader. 

As you try out democratic leadership and other styles, it’s important to hone in on your leadership skills so you can easily pivot between approaches and engage your team, leading to better results for your organization. Luckily, F4S is here to help you do so through resources, such as their motivations assessment or leadership coaching program. 

The next time you’re hoping to inspire your team and lead them to success, you’ll be able to use skills from the democratic leadership style to motivate your employees and collaborate to find a winning solution.


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