The democratic leadership style is marked by several drawbacks that must be overcome if the management style is to be effective. There are five basic challenges of the democratic leadership style: competency, crises, consensus, pseudo-participation, and adherence.
The democratic leadership style offers many benefits but many potential negatives. Effective management involves carefully weighing these challenges against the strengths of the organization and planning accordingly. The democratic leadership style is not appropriate for every company.
In a democratic leadership setting, employees have to be knowledgeable enough about the company's affairs to make decisions that are appropriately framed. As such, employees are privy to a greater amount of sensitive information that could cause issues such as employee salaries or executive expenses.
If management is to successfully use the democratic process within their infrastructure, that system must be agile and expedient enough to enable them to respond quickly to crises scenarios. For example, if a computer company is facing pressure from a rapidly changing market and it responds by appointing committees to review the situation and recommend a course of action, the company may be blindsided by a subsequent change in the market such as the introduction or popularization of a new technology, product or service.
The more people who are involved in a decision process, the more difficult it is to reach a consensus because the decision-making process is long and involved. There may be sessions that turn into nothing more than lengthy debates and conjecture with no forward progress towards resolution. Opinions may or may not be founded in facts but be based on emotions.
In addition, the goals of the organization and the way that a proposed move affects those goals must be considered. It can be difficult to get employees to focus on the welfare of the company as opposed to their own (e.g. proposed layoffs) or the welfare of the company over the welfare of their respective departments (e.g. proposed outsourcing of the marketing department).
There is a danger of a democratic style of management being adopted only in name and not in practice. If a company claims that it has a democratic leadership style but makes decisions autocratically either before or after employee consultation that company will likely experience greater employee dissatisfaction and discontent that it would if it had stated the case accurately.
One of the greatest challenges of the democratic style of leadership is that leadership must emerge from the bottom: the “people’s choice". If the consensus of the group goes against that of management, those individuals must be willing to adopt the consensus. If they override the group's decision, it is likely that the group will assume that management is only pretending to participate in a democratic leadership style and the company will experience the same consequences as those of pseudo-participation.
Overcoming these five negatives of the democratic leadership style allows companies to fully benefit from the advantages of this management style such as higher employee satisfaction and better retention rates.
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- Oates, Simon, "Leadership Styles: Autocratic vs Democratic vs Bureaucratic," Leadership Expert, http://www.leadership-expert.co.uk/leadership-styles/
- Goleman, Daniel, "Leadership that Gets Results," getAbstract and Harvard Business School Publishing (2007), http://sharpe-es.nl/gfx/HBR%27s%20Must-reads%20on%20managing%20people.pdf#page=4