Organisational democracy is still a fairly misunderstood concept. For many people it conjures up images of slow, painful meetings with endless debates and arguments.

At the same time, businesses are finding that unless they can become more flexible, inclusive and trusting, it’s tough attracting the best people and hard to create adaptable organisations that can thrive in our fast-paced, digital world.

Organisational democracy is based on transparency, freedom and autonomy,  instead of fear and control.

Democracy at work is an idea that’s gathering pace and not just among smaller, creative businesses like ours. WorldBlu has recently certified 41 organisations in its eighth annual list of the Most Democratic Workplaces in the world. The list includes huge global corporations such as, Davita, one of the largest kidney care providers in the US, online retail giant Zappos and the world-wide consumer products company, WD-40.

The work that we do with large, complex organisations also backs this idea of democracy gathering pace. Our innovation, collaboration and leadership programmes are always about embedding new mindsets and behaviours. Many of our clients wouldn’t call this organisational democracy, but essentially we are helping them to change and adapt to become more flexible, agile and open.

Our work, plus WorldBlu certification for the sixth consecutive year (making us the UK’s longest standing certified democratic organisation), puts us in a good position to say the workplace really can be democratic.

Here’s what you need to think about

If you’re up for helping your organisation become more democratic, it’s worth thinking about how well it embodies some of these core principles and how far (or not) it has to go.

Purpose and vision

Having a clear purpose and vision for the organisation helps orient everything. Knowing how each project and person contributes to this will provide them with greater freedom and autonomy to do their work in the way they see fit. It also makes group decision-making far easier, as it puts the focus on an inspiring and collective goal, not individual issues and personal politics.

Ask yourself: What is our crystal clear and compelling purpose or vision and do all team members know how they contribute to it?


Greater transparency helps make sure everyone is treated fairly and they act with respect towards others. It also allows people to talk about what’s real, rather than guessing what’s going on.

Sharing the company’s finance or salary data, or making minutes from the board meetings open for everyone to see might sound scary – but most of the time, the stories people make up in absence of the facts are more damaging than having access to the truth.

Ask yourself: What is the one figure or piece of information that we could start to share, that might help us all do a better job?

Dialogue and listening

Genuine dialogue and listening fully to everyone regardless of their status, is the way to get better results. Not only do people feel more respected and therefore more motivated and engaged, the chances are that the answers to your tricky problems lie out there in the wider team. The trouble is that a lot of the time, many of us are not listening to understand, we’re listening to reply and when we hear something we don’t like we get defensive.

Ask yourself: How do we listen and interact around here? Is it from a place of understanding and connection, or convincing and influencing?

Fairness and dignity

Ensuring that everyone feels fairly treated, regardless of status, and respected for their individual contribution is the only way to create an engaged team. It’s not just a matter of moral imperative, it also makes good business sense. Disproportionate praise, reward or consideration for one part of a company over another leads to in-fighting and resentment. A clear and authentic commitment to fairness and equality means that people show up ready and willing to give their best, in a way that leaves them feeling good about where they work.

Ask yourself: Who gets more, or less, of the attention around here and what would things be like if we all felt equally respected?


If you want to create greater freedom at work, then healthy accountability is the glue that sticks points 1 to 4 together. It means focusing on the problem, not the person and not being afraid to have tough conversations in service of the purpose or vision. It doesn’t mean finding out who’s fault it was, or publicly shaming people to make sure no one does it again, it’s about creating the conditions for healthy conflict that end up with better results.

Ask yourself: How do we hold each other to account and how easy is it to have the tough conversations that count?

The principles above are based on five of the ten WorldBlu principles of organisational democracy. They are just some of the things to think about if you want to create a workplace that’s more open, inclusive and gets great results.

But what’s so great about democracy at work?

So why is democracy in the workplace finally starting to get traction? I believe that command-and-control structures that rely on strict management hierarchies have had their day. People are looking for workplaces that value them as human beings, not just work units.

Employers are waking up to the fact that conventional reward systems don’t always produce the behaviours they want. And large, bureaucratic businesses are failing in the face of disruptive startups and fast-paced change.

By becoming a more democratic workplace, a business can expect to:

Attract great people

There’s a greater emphasis on wellbeing than ever before and particularly on intrinsic benefits like well-being, job satisfaction and personal growth. Democratic workplaces offer a greater sense of belonging, respect and the ability to effect, which appeals to our deepest human needs and tends to attract smarter people – those who know what’s good for them.

Motivate staff

Employers are recognising that these working practices also help attract and keep hold of great talent. Dan Pink, author of “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us”, says that freedom and autonomy is one of the key drivers of motivation and long term performance.

Reward systems, like annual bonuses or pay rises, only offer short-term change or satisfaction, which quickly wears off. More freedom and autonomy means happier, more productive, more motivated staff.

Become more flexible and adaptable

To thrive in today’s world, you need to move fast. You can’t rely on the super-hero leader to have all the answers, or wait for that response to a press allegation to clear your five levels of sign-off before the news hits Twitter. With more democratic working practices, it’s possible to harness more of the intelligence in the organisation, to come up with smarter answers, faster and by trusting and empowering staff to turn those ideas into action before someone else gets there first.

The main thing to remember is that it’s a journey – not a destination. Our needs and the social norms around work are always changing, but what we can do is strive to create working environments that are better for people and for business. And this usually means doing something a bit different.

Max St. John, Managing director of the WorldBlu certified NixonMcInnes