Saying "No" To Democracy

Posted on 19th October, 2009

This piece was also published by The Huffington Post:


“This is about a culture of management that seems to think in a democracy that the workforce have to do just what they're told.”


This happens to have been said by Billy Hayes, the General Secretary of the UK’s Communication Workers Union, currently at loggerheads with the management of Royal Mail about the very future of the mail delivery industry, in a dispute which could easily become a key barometer of the state of global industrial relations in the 21st century.


But Mr. Hayes is by no means unique in this view.


More to the point, this view is by no means unique even to union officials or aggrieved workers: I have heard senior managers within organisations all over the world say pretty much the same thing.


Which is, of course, surprising, to say the least.


Why would anyone take such a line?


Because if one takes this argument to its logical extreme, disaster necessarily awaits.


Manifestly, not everyone in an organisation will agree. This is particularly likely to be the case where the short term interests of staff are endangered by a course of action that is right for the long term interests of the organisation, as is the case at Royal Mail.


If, as the Hayes line requires, we make majority agreement – or democracy - a condition precedent of key management decisions, deadlock, stagnation and ultimately terminal decline ensue.


This is no idle conjecture, and it certainly isn’t a political point. It is a simple reflection of reality, and something that I have seen with my own eyes, over and again, across the globe.


When organisations start to place such a high premium on consensus in decision-making, they start to fail.


Given that neither workers nor management want to see organisational failure, why is the Hayes line so earnestly pursued?


Unions and their leaders have short term political considerations, of course. So too, arguably, do managers. But the real issue here is a deeply entrenched, and terribly well-intentioned, confusion.


Throughout the 20th century, people in organisations quite properly started to say “hang on a minute, this top-down, autocratic ‘you will do this when I tell you’ culture is no longer appropriate; as managers we should be more consultative and involve our people more, not least because they might have some useful things to say”.


Spot on. You tend to get more productive organisations if everyone is allowed to contribute fully.


The difficulty is that that people have confused “consultation” – let’s hear what our people have to say and then make a decision which may or may not accord with their thinking – with “consensus” – let's ask our people what they think and then all make this decision together.


In my experience, the tendency for managers to want to see the latter can be overwhelming. This is doubly so, perhaps understandably, in those organisations which have a history of punitive, thoughtless management and are desperate to show that they “have changed”.


The problem is, they have changed too much. The pendulum has swung too far the other way, and the cult of uber-consensualism has emerged as an insidious force inside too many organisations.


Because – somewhat counter-intuitively – democracy, in the sense that we know and cherish it politically, does not in fact make for better organisations.


It kills them.

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Comments (1)

Agreed, great piece. Another unwanted by-product of (well-intentioned) over-consultation is a growing perception of weak leadership from within - indecision and inaction are not classic hallmarks of the great visionaries of our times and certainly not something to seek to aspire to or emulate. Taken to another extreme, weak leadership and the resultant stubborn refusal to take accountability for decisions can politicise the work environment and balkanise the office. If the internal tail wags the dog, futile circles ensue and external economic cirumstances are just that - circumstantial.