How to be an awesome democratic manager in an old-school company

I usually write about transforming entire businesses into democracies. What if you don’t have the power to do this, but would like to realise the benefits to productivity and happiness in your team that democracy brings? Here are some tips for managers.

Old-school companies are secretive by default and only share information with employees when there’s a clear need. This breeds distrust because people fear the unknown. Democracies do the opposite. As a manager in any organisation you can adopt this principle, even if you can’t be as open as you would like to be. Go out of your way to be as transparent as possible about financial matters, strategy and decisions. Look for instances where information is not being shared, but not made explicitly secret and show employees what’s really going on in the company. Transparency breeds trust and avoids conspiracy theories.

Sharing your problems and opening up decision making is another powerful way to build trust. As a manager you don’t have to have all of the answers and solutions. A strong leader isn’t afraid to say ‘I don’t know’ and by doing this, you invite good ideas and a feeling of involvement from your team, plus decisions made with their input will be supported and faster to execute. Involve your team in the things that you are working on and you might be surprised at how much they can help. This is especially true of decisions that directly affect the people on the team.

Understanding what really motivates people at work is well proven by social science but little known to most businesses. Focus your team on these three principles and they will be happier and more motivated at work:

  1. Autonomy: People are most motivated when they have control over how to do their own work. Work with your team to decide what needs to be achieved, then get out of the way and allow them to figure out how to do it. Be there for them as a facilitator, helper and supporter. Not a supervisor.
  2. Mastery: Don’t get obsessed with objectives for performance. Whilst you will probably need success metrics and have to achieve some concrete goals, these are like a scorecard, not a strategy. Instead focus most of your attention on objectives for learning and improving your team’s skills on a path towards mastery. This is extremely motivating and a far more effective strategy for actually getting the best performance.
  3. Connectedness: People are motivated when they are contributing to a higher purpose, together with others. Discuss with your team how their work is helping to make the world a better place for people, societies or the environment (hopefully there is some higher purpose other than making money, otherwise it’s probably time to find a new job!)

Building an informal recognition programme is another very simple but powerful motivator. Take frequent opportunities to recognise great performance and effort as and when it happens, and in person as much as possible. Be very specific in feedback. Not just a ‘great job’ or ‘thanks’ but say exactly what they did well and why it’s appreciated. It has to be genuine. Lead by example to build a culture of feedback in your team by actively soliciting feedback from the team. Reward after the event, not by dangling carrots.

Encourage your team to create its own rituals like the Church of Fail or Ringing the Bell of Awesomeness. This helps you to build your own culture-within-a-culture based on better, more positive principles.

Lobby for change in the organisation. You can start by suggesting that one or two employees come to the board meeting each month, or if you’re not on the board, suggest that regular employees can come along to other meetings that are usually ‘above their paygrade’ to see what’s going on and provide input. The board or senior team will gain from the ‘reality check’ of having regular employees present, and it breaks down fear of ‘them upstairs.’ Question secrecy, making requests for more transparency and communication.

Whatever happens, and no matter how much corporate crap you’re putting up with, don’t ever allow yourself or team to fall into a spiral of negativity and complaining. Become a tribe of happy rebels, not whingers. Push the boundaries of the prevailing culture as far as you can; do things differently within your domain; and be a catalyst for change.

If you begin to work with democratic principles within your team or department, others will notice how much more productive, motivated and happy your team is. When they ask you what your secret is, this might just kick-start a change to make the whole organisation more democratic.

Good luck, and please post your own experiences, questions and ideas in the comments. I’m sure there are lots of other things you can do to be a great manager in a difficult culture.

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