Democracy in the Workplace

I’m in Las Vegas this week, attending Worldblu’s 2010 conference, at which Worldblu CEO Traci Fenton will honor the world’s most democratic workplaces. It’s an eclectic group of people and industries, and although there will be a few other educators at the event, it’s primarily an opportunity to learn what some forward-thinking folks in the private sector have learned about how the use of democratic principles can help create an optimal learning environment. In particular, I’m looking forward to hearing more from Tony Hsieh, the founder of Zappos and the recent focus of an extended profile in the New Yorker.

I’m also preparing to test-drive my belief that the core challenge in any organization — whether it’s an elementary school or an online shoe retailer — is to strike the right balance between providing a few clearly-defined, goal-oriented shared structures, and reserving enough space for individuals to feel free to express themselves, ad lib, try new ideas, and find ways to improve the overall flow of the organization. I’ll be blogging about it all week, so please stay tuned and share with me any questions you think would be particularly worth considering.

Categories: Democracy, Leadership, Learning, Voice

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  1. Posted June 23, 2010 at 11:45 pm | Permalink

    Somewhere in his astonishing book The Making of the Atomic Bomb—-sorry, I can’t remember just where—Richard Rhodes describes the way in which an important decision was made. Very few people knew about the bomb project, of course, and outside experts could not be consulted. There were only a handful (fewer than 10) who were in a position to contribute to making the decision. So, the group arbitrarily divided up into two groups, one “pro” and one “con.” The group agreed to reconvene after a short interval of time so that each sub-group could make its case. They did this explicitly to avoid “groupthink” and other kinds of conformity and peer pressure. I think this way of doing things could work for many situations. If people just try to make the best case for the side of the argument they are assigned to work on, and it’s understood that each group is to explore its side of the issue completely, rather than advocate for one or another favorite, the issues can be looked at objectively.

    I note that this is exactly the procedure avoided by the Bush administration when it made decisions about Iraq. Rather than trust intelligence professionals in the CIA and elsewhere, Rumsfeld and co. formed their own Pentagon-based intelligence group to gather information on the issues they were interested in, looking for particular answers. Of course the beliefs they came in with were confirmed.

    I am not just shooting from the hip on the Bush-groupthink thing here; check out

    and also

    The latter link is from the group Psychologists for Social Responsibility—pretty cool.

    Best wishes to everyone and especially Sam! Keep up the great work!

  2. Posted June 23, 2010 at 11:46 pm | Permalink

    Regarding that last comment, apparently the “” tag took over and the whole thing showed up in italics. Sorry!

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