Free Choice? Democracy Anyone?

Mike Klein – Commscrumming from Belgrade (sort of)

“Is Change Democratic?”  That was the question I spoke to in response to an invitation by the European Association of Communication Directors (EACD) to speak at a seminar on change communication at the University of Belgrade in Serbia last week.

Now, being Serbia, a nation with a tenuous democratic history and double digit unemployment, a majority didn’t buy the argument.  “People don’t have a choice,” the dissenting majority said, perhaps failing to comprehend the idea that very few workers are actually hauled into their offices and chained to their desks.

But while the idea that acceptance of – or resistance to – organisational change is a function of free choice may be hard for Serbs to accept doesn’t make it any less real or powerful.  Indeed, I think the question of acknowledging the role of free choice is the single most fundamental question facing business communicators today.

Ignoring the centrality of employee choice, further, may well be the bad seed that turns the 70% of change initiatives that fail into dust, leaving them defeated rather than disintegrated.  Recognising the centrality of free choice, in turn, may well leave us with a new suite of approaches, and even refreshments to traditional tools like cascades, roadshows and newsletters.

The time has come to tackle this question head on – is free choice at the root of all organisational behaviour?  And if do, to what extent are organisations more democratic than they appear?

Kevin Keohane – CommScrum Bayswater

Pipping Dang Ray to the post – “It depends.”

Different people, different cultures, different organisations and types of organisations will all have differing degrees of expectation and behaviour in terms of “free choice”.  In the one hand many might see employment as a privilege and not a right (North America?) – “Like it or lump it, vote with your feet.”  Others, for example more Socialised countries (Germany? Scandinavia?) might see employment as more part of the social contract – “This is my job, my right, you will listen to me.”

I think the more interesting question is the second one – are organisations more democratic than they appear.  We’ve all seen “listening by numbers” with surveys and focus groups and feedback – and then nothing happens or the leaders do what they planned anyway.  We’ve also seen where genuine employee engagement and personal implication in organisational change has resulted in significant improvement in culture, systems and processes.

Another interesting thought is to look at Partnerships (i.e. professional services and law firms).  I have a lot of experience in these environments and can tell you with confidence and certainty – when it comes to driving change to improve business performance, democracy ain’t all it’s cracked up to be, brother.

Perhaps at the root of all this is “intent” – one of your favourite topics recently.  Sometimes change has to happen and it doesn’t matter whether the employee has input or not.  Other times it’s needed.

Arguably, however, deeply embedded norms and cultural artefacts can result in behaviours that have little to do with free will and choice – to what degree can you REALLY “be yourself” at work?

Lindsay Uittenbogaard in Delft

It would be a whole lot easier to implement change if change was less democratic and more dictatorial, wouldn’t it? As much as I like to think that among an organisation of mature citizens, the appetite for change ( and success of it ) be would determined by some kind of invisible mass judgement that kind of magically and systemically steers the best path forward … that’s just not always the case. Of course Kevin, you’re right, different levels of democracy exist in different places, I suppose that my tuppence on this is this… let’s not assume that more is better.

Democracy does save an organisation from making bombastic royal-size screw ups, but there are a whole load of people who can sustain their own skewed perspectives without being led otherwise if they can have a voice in preventing change that move against their agenda or view.

Dan Gray – CommScrum London

Indeed, KK (and Lindsay), you’ve pipped me to the post!

As CommScrum’s “anorak-in-residence” I find myself reaching once more to situational leadership theory and – in particular – Daniel Goleman’s six leadership styles, which would tend to suggest that, at least when radical change is in the offing, a democratic approach is probably a poor choice.

I’d also point to a model from Dunphy and Stace, which I think frames things rather more concretely. They also suggest a contingency approach to change implementation, ultimately boiling down to the assessment of three factors:

  • The nature of the change (incremental or transformative)
  • The time available to make the change (time/no time for participation), and
  • The degree of support that already exists among key interest groups

Bottom line, if time is available and key interest groups support the change, then by all means drink deeply from the well of more collaborative and consultative models – “participative evolution” and “charismatic transformation” (which essentially map on to Goleman’s “democratic” and “visionary” styles). But when the brown stuff’s about to hit the whirly thing, that’s a different matter.

Command and control ain’t always wrong, ‘kay. It’s just wrong if that’s the only style in your locker.


6 thoughts on “Free Choice? Democracy Anyone?

  1. Some idle thoughts. Democracy is seen as a method of government, not business. Government is seen as inefficient and difficult, as well as being easily corrupted. Many say they are all in favour of democracy, but it is a really hard system to get working properly and even in government, most start to look for easier ways, even though history suggests the long-term results are always worse.

    Where choice isn’t given within the workplace, workers tend to make their choices by leaving (so many organisations have high churn rates) or staying but focusing just on doing the job in the PD and no more. They feel their efforts are better spent on their families, friends and interests.

    It all comes back to treating employees as people. If you create the environment in which they can be people and not just workers, including the ability to make choices, the results will follow.

    Cheers, geoff

  2. Mike Klein says:

    Thanks for the comment, Geoff… At the same time:

    * By recognising that there is a democratic angle to the way organisations operate, regardless of whether they are commercial or political, it becomes possible to use distinctions that effect or support change in democratic environments. Authority is conferred ultimately by legitimacy, as opposed to by force. Acceptance is given and cannot be simply taken as given. Velocity is a function of tribal acceptance and not mere mass compliance.

    * I would argue that the only choices are those that are free – even if employees are underwater on their homes and SUV’s, the choices they have made to get to that position are theirs alone, and equally, the choices they make in the workplace are theirs as well. Aside from the most rote assembly line jobs imaginable, most employees have some range of decision that they freely exercise, and not always in alignment with company wishes or even “dictates”

  3. Dan Gray says:

    @Geoff – Not sure you can make such a blanket statement about democracy as a method of government, not business. Granted it’s not commonplace, but there are high profile examples, such as the John Lewis Partnership here in the UK, for example, where democracy is very much a founding principle.

    Consider the following elements of their governance structure:

    1) At least 80% of John Lewis’ Partnership Council (one of the main governing authorities of the organisation) is directly elected by all permanent staff. It has the power to discuss any matter whatsoever and, each year, the Chairman and other senior directors must appear before it to give an account of their stewardship. (How about that? The board answerable to employees!)

    2) Democracy is similarly enshrined in Divisional and Branch Councils and Committees for Communication, the latter being elected by constituencies that comprise only non-management partners (NB “partners” is what JLP calls its staff, since everyone co-owns the business) . They are explicitly designed to ensure that everyone who is not involved in management nevertheless has an open channel for expressing their views to management and the Chairman.

    3) There is also an internal regulator – the Partners’ Counsellor – who, through a unique system of Registrars, is charged with ensuring that the Partnership’s values and democratic systems are upheld.

    All that said, I agree entirely with your last statement, which echoes KK’s point in the original post – i.e. the extent to which people can *really* bring their whole selves to work. There, we come back to previous discussions here and elsewhere (e.g. one of Kevin’s DTIM blogs – about values and the extent to which companies ever *truly* recruit on them.

    • Dan Gray says:

      Also, consider a seemingly more anarchic example like Semco (fascinating interview with founder, Ricardo Semler, here –, where democracy appears to be just about the *only* organisational rule in existence.

      On the face of it, it’s the absolute epitome of co-operative self-organisation, and I’ve just ordered a copy of Semler’s book, The Seven Day Weekend, in the hope of learning more about what sounds like a truly amazing business.

      • Dan, I tried not to make a blanket statement – I used the word “seen” making it very unclear that I was talking about perceptions and labels rather than actual methodologies.

        Mike, in workplaces where people are treated as people and given real choices, results will follow. In workplaces where they are not, and this is still the way the majority of the world’s businesses continue to operate, people leave or perform by rote as they choose to focus on other areas of their lives.

        Either way, the final result for the business is totally dependent on the availablity of choice, so I think we probably agree and I’m just expressing myself really badly!

        Cheers, geoff

  4. kevinkeohane says:

    DanG, I’m wondering if those two models can be mashed up to create a decision tree…

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