A better world, one office at a time

Today's companies need to build a democratic workplace.

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This is the dawn of the most entrepreneurial and socially aware generation in history. Workers under 40 are passionate about corporate social responsibility, a greener environment, and human rights – and we're creating businesses to advance those causes in the process.

The challenge is, however, that we're not necessarily building workplaces that do the same. Instead, we're often relying on the same old command-and-control structures that are inconsistent with the progressive causes we've created our companies to support.

Today's entrepreneurs need to break that trend and build democratic workplaces, because the way we work is just as important to advancing humankind as what we do or what we stand for.

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Al Gore's Nobel Prize for his work in raising environmental awareness and inspiring change is praiseworthy. I yearn, however, for the day when a Nobel Prize is given to those who have worked to clean up the toxic workplace environments that billions of us work in each day.

Yet just as it took time to realize that it's possible to have successful businesses and lives without destroying our planet, we must realize that the way most people are treated at work – as nameless, faceless minions without real power – has to change to a democratic workplace if we are to truly change the world for the better.

What is a democratic workplace? It's one that uses freedom rather than fear, peer-to-peer relationships rather than paternalism, engagement rather than estrangement. Beyond giving employees a vote, it's about giving them a real voice in the decisions that impact their job and the organization.

This isn't some keep-your-fingers-crossed-and-hope-they-make-the-right-choice way of working; it's understanding that democracy is the way you tap the full creative potential of your employees to solve the problems you created your organization to fix. It's understanding that the traditional hierarchical workplace structures that operated on disengagement and the delusion of control are now a recipe for defeat in today's collaborative world.

Operating an organization democratically also helps the bottom line: It trims unnecessary layers of management, decreases turnover costs through improved employee morale, and increases innovation by tapping employee creativity.

So how will running your organization democratically help change the world for the better? Here are a few ways:

Democratic workplaces build more peaceful societies. In her recent study of nearly 80 nations, Gretchen Spreitzer, a University of Michigan professor of management and organizations, found that there was significantly less corruption or unrest and more peace in nations where employees have the freedom to make decisions at work and where organizations are managed using a participatory leadership style. Conversely, in countries where employees have to be more compliant in following a manager's decision, there is more unrest. Ms. Spreitzer found that democratically run workplaces not only benefit economically from progressive management practices, but also enhance peace in their community by reducing the feelings of powerlessness at work. Imagine the potential impact of teaching Iraqi business leaders how to run their businesses democratically!

Democratic workplaces are healthier. What about the impact of workplace democracy on employees' physical health? Gallup reports that 62 percent of "engaged" employees in the US believe that being engaged at work has a positive impact on their health, whereas a combined 84 percent of "not engaged" or "actively disengaged" employees feel that not being engaged has a negative impact on their physical health.

Instead of throwing money into wellness programs and on-site gyms, companies could consider increasing employees' opportunities to fully engage at work, potentially lowering their healthcare costs in the process.

Democratic workplaces create more democratic citizens. In Botswana, a nation working hard to build and sustain its political democracy, organizations are expected and encouraged to operate democratically. In 1993, its Ministry of Education decided to transition all secondary schools from an authoritarian to a democratic management structure. The result? According to the International Education Journal, students, administrators, and the country as a whole are benefiting from a more democratic citizenry.

Democratic workplaces honor human rights. Just as living in a free society is a basic human right, so should working in a democratic workplace. I know a British woman in China who founded a small nonprofit organization to teach female migrant workers about self-esteem through improvisational theater. In a nation known for its abuse of human rights, she courageously chooses to operate her organization democratically, teaching a few hundred women at a time about their own humanness and honoring their human rights in the process.

This past spring, my company identified 34 of the world's most outstanding democratic workplaces, organizations that ranged from five to 2,000 employees, with revenues of $1 million to more than $400 million a year. However, we need more democratic organizations if we're going to change the world. So dream up your big idea and go build it – democratically.

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