Democracy in the workplace

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Business leaders who want to retain and leverage talent and position yourselves for success in the new business landscape, listen up. More workers want to be fully engaged, and they want a new model through which they can express themselves while making a contribution that matters.

This demand for engagement is driven by five trends that are dramatically reshaping the business context:

•Technology, the Internet, and a "flat" world. Myspace.com made us somebodies; Wikipedia.com made us experts; Zimbio.com made us collaborators; Blogs and podcasts gave us voices.

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•Enron backlash. People are disgusted with the greedy model of business epitomized by the rise and fall of companies such as Enron, Tyco, Global Crossing, and others.

•The victory of political democracy. With two-thirds of the world considered politically democratic, businesses need a system more compatible with democratic rule.

•Generations X and Y have arrived. As a a borderline Gen-X/Gen-Yer I can tell you we expect to have a voice at work, be treated with authenticity and openness, and have the opportunity to make a difference now.

•The search for meaning at work. In Patricia Aburdene's recent book "Megatrends 2010," she states that spirituality or the search for meaning is the No. 1 megatrend of our time. People want their work to matter and to be an expression of their sense of purpose and identity.

Command and control ways (as in, "do what you're told because I'm the boss and I know best") of the Industrial Age are dead. A Democratic Age demands a democratic approach to business that engages employees fully, taps their reservoir of talent, builds on their strengths, and rewards them in the process.

I've spent the past decade traveling the world, studying and meeting with democratic companies in the US, Europe, Africa, and Latin America to see firsthand how they do things differently and why they are successful. Here are the 10 things I've found they all do:

1. They get naked. Say goodbye to the "secret society" mentality. Democratic companies are authentic, open, and transparent with their employees about their financial health, strategy, and agenda.

2. They have a conversation. Instead of the monologue or dysfunctional silence that characterizes most companies, democratic companies are committed to ongoing conversations and collaboration.

3. They loathe rankism. Democratic companies are all about fairness and dignity, not treating some people like "somebodies" and others like "nobodies."

4. They understand the meaning of life. Any employee in a democratic company can tell why the organization exists and where it is headed. A democratic company's purpose and vision is their true north.

5. They point fingers. Not in a blaming way; in a liberating way! Democratic companies know who is accountable for what.

6. They think the individual is as important as the whole. In democratic companies, people are seen not only for what they bring to the collective goals of the organization but also for their individual contribution. No one is just a cog in the machine.

7. They're not Cyclopean. Democratic companies thrive on giving employees choices.

8. They've got backbone. Integrity is the name of the game, and democratic companies have a lot of it. They understand that freedom takes discipline.

9. They're so vain. Move over Narcissus, democratic companies have you beat! Democratic companies are vain because they're so committed to looking in the mirror and asking, "How can we be better?" not just quarterly or annually, but daily.

10. They don't believe in the caste system. Democratic companies are all about distributed and decentralized power. They don't just derive (or hoard) power from one power source at the "top" because in a democratic company, there usually isn't a traditional top.

Several companies successfully employ these strategies to attract and retain top talent, spark innovation, enhance efficiency, and build trust.

At GE/Durham, for example, where the jet engines that fly Air Force One and most commercial planes are assembled, almost all decisions are made in teams by consensus. Whole Foods has an open "salary book," where any employee can see what other employees make. Great Harvest Bread Company operates its 200+ franchises using a "freedom-centered" approach.

Semco allows employees to choose both their boss and how much they want to get paid. W.L. Gore, a $2 billion company, has what they call a "flat lattice" approach instead of layers of hierarchy so there is no chain of command – only direct connections to whomever an employee needs access.

What makes these companies successful is not a gimme democratic practice here or there but the integration of all 10 principles. It takes work, but these companies understand that it's key to their competitive advantage, their bottom line, and the future of business in a Democratic Age.

Traci Fenton is founder and CEO of WorldBlu Inc., a business design studio specializing in organizational democracy. E-mail: traci@worldblu.com.

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