"The big ideas database"
It’s a grandiose title, no? In a previous role as the head of HR functions for a software and training services company, we had set up this destination for employee ideas and suggestions. It gave us a place to capture their inputs, similar to an ordinary suggestion box, but the difference was every idea went through a very specific and transparent set of decision points and reviews for consideration.
In my time there, we had quite a few ideas flow through that pipeline. There were the more mundane ones, sure. A bigger trash can in the kitchen? Let’s make that happen. But others went so much deeper. One of our team members suggested that if we took one of our current offerings and changed the pricing model, we could cut the development costs and increase sales. That one decision, once implemented, became a multimillion-dollar revenue stream for the company.
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The biggest takeaway from that experience wasn’t all the outcomes necessarily, although they were cumulatively important. The biggest lesson was that people want to be heard. They want their ideas to be given credence and consideration.
In today’s work environment, practicing this concept of workplace democracy can help to not only bring in ideas and innovation, but also ensure people feel a critical sense of belonging and culture in a powerful way.
What it takes to establish a democratic workplace
Success here comes from more than just opening a physical or digital suggestion box. If you truly want organisational commitment to this idea of fairness, openness, and mutual respect, it has to start at the top. In his book The Front Line Leader, CEO of Scripps Health Chris Van Gorder talks about the concept of “fly by” leaders.
Many of us have had this experience at work with the aloof, detached leader that “flies by” occasionally just to check the box, even if they really aren’t interested in what’s happening or what anyone has to say. In Van Gorder’s experience, leaders who do this are actually hurting the team with this occasional activity, because it just reminds people how rare it is for the leader to actually show up.
Instead, a democratic workplace requires leaders who care and will hold up the standard for trust, accountability, and transparency. They don’t expect others to do what they won’t do. They accomplish this by erring on the side of openness, providing the information they can. In our research, we developed a framework for transparency that fits well in this discussion. The PRESS framework is a guide for leaders that want to operationalise openness and fairness within their organisations. The keys:
Process: having clearly defined processes helps to avoid a secretive approach where nobody trusts the outputs or decisions.
Range: establish a set of expectations or guardrails for decisions that everyone can comprehend.
Equity: put fairness front and centre. Every single person in the organisation should clearly see, feel, and experience this commitment.
Stretch: always be looking for something to share. Default to transparency unless there’s a compelling and clear reason that doing so would cause more harm than good.
Solicit: asking for feedback and input from the workforce helps to ensure that the moving target that is workplace fairness is always front and centre.
Leaders that follow this framework not only establish an expectation of openness and transparency, but data indicate that those two factors help to drive trust and greater engagement within the workforce (both of which are linked to retention, performance, productivity, and other desirable metrics).
Speaking of desirable metrics, let’s take a page from the book of someone who’s performing well in a public capacity. In a recent discussion with Alex Smith, CHRO of the City of Memphis, she told me that one of the most critical success factors in her department’s accomplishments during her tenure thus far have come down to clarity of purpose.
In her words, “When I came into this role, [the Mayor and I] were extremely clear about not only my goal, but my purpose as a leader in what I was here to do. I think it is important for all HR professionals to really understand the critical business needs for the organisation that you’re a part of, and what is your role in your purpose within that.”
It all comes down to what leaders see as their purpose in the workplace. Is it to create a workplace where people feel valued and appreciated and are willing to do their best work? If so, we have to be very clear about that purpose and our commitment to making it a reality.
Is this a recipe for chaos, or commitment?
Let’s admit that the concept of operating a democratic workplace where everyone’s voice is heard can feel like a recipe for chaos. After all, our own data point out that workers have very different priorities when it comes to work. Some care about relationships, others about work/life balance, and still others about career mobility. In fact, there’s not a single pair of age groups in the workplace today that have the same top two priorities for what they want from a job! So how is this different?
Just like in any democracy, employers only have so much time, money, and focus. Yet we see in our research time and time again that decisions made at a company level often don’t account for the voice of the employees, which should hold considerable weight. That’s because when someone is able to be heard, they are much more committed to the outcome.
That’s not just a guess–it’s what the research indicates. There was a fascinating research project I cited in my book that resonates very well with this conversation. Conducted a few years back, this study was meant to explore trust as it related to recommendations from algorithms. The researchers found that humans don’t always trust the recommendations of an algorithm at first blush. However, if that person has a chance to input their own ideas, priorities, or concerns into the decision-making algorithm, they are much more likely to believe in and support the outcome, even if it doesn’t materially change the algorithm’s recommendation at all!
This all comes down to the fact that each of us has this innate desire to have our voice be heard. If you’ve ever steeled yourself during a meeting to stand up and have your say, even when you knew it wouldn’t change the final decision, you know what I’m talking about here. We want to say our piece and make it known to others. As the Chief People Officer of one technology firm recently put it in a conversation, “We all want to be seen, heard, and recognised.”
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The diversity, equity, and inclusion considerations of workplace democracy
Conversations around creating inclusive workplaces often centre around being your “best true self at work.” It’s become almost a cliche at this point, but bear with me.
Neuroscientists know that our brains are hardwired to look for danger. It’s an innate trait, but you need to understand that this occupies a percentage of our mental bandwidth. When we show up to a workplace where we feel like our voice doesn’t matter or our vote doesn’t count, our brains perceive that as a type of danger. However, when we work in a place where we can share ideas, bring innovation, and generally be heard and included, it helps to unlock that part of our brain that’s worried about danger. This psychological safety is how we can really, truly be our best selves at work.
I’ll close with one final argument. In the book The Difference, Scott Page looks at research that highlights diversity in decision making changes the outcomes. However, it may not be what you think. Research has shown that if you have diverse individuals in the room when decisions are being made, even if those diverse individuals say nothing, the other people in the room make different decisions due to the presence of someone who looks, talks, acts, and/or thinks differently.
Obviously, we want everyone to speak up (and to feel comfortable doing so), since that’s the crux of this larger argument, but the result is an important one: when everyone’s voice is considered worthy of inclusion in decisions, different decisions are made.
As has often been said, “None of us is as smart as all of us,” and being able to tap into the creativity, energy, and focus of every single person in the workplace is a worthwhile, noble pursuit. Workplace democracy is a powerful concept, and it's one that forward-thinking employers are going to leverage as they try to stand out and differentiate themselves in the hopes of attracting and retaining the best workforce.
The future of skills
For more of Ben's insight, watch this video clip where he discusses the human nature of skills in the digital age. Or watch the full thirty-minute fireside chat where he explores skills in the future of work.