Photo by Randy Colas on Unsplash

5 ways to make your workplace more democratic

My first job in digital media was one of the worst kinds of jobs in digital media. I was the lowest paid employee in the company, making $10 an hour as an independent contractor. I was also the senior editor, overseeing an editorial team of 10 people producing content across five verticals. Our four writers were told to publish under multiple pseudonyms daily across our network of sites to make the company seem more legitimate. To that end, we’d often outsource research and production to Fiverr freelancers with little care for the authenticity or quality.

The CEO was a wealthy, former stock trader and was trying to play digital publishing like the market. He’d discuss the most efficient way to bring in a user for a cent and sell them for four. The company’s workflows would change almost daily based on his interpretation of the day’s analytics. In my thankfully short stint at the company, paydays were frequently replaced by company lunches that consisted of shitty Chinese food.

Everyone who worked there lived under his thumb, starved for authentic self expression and with no recourse but to quit and go without the bare wage that was keeping their head above water.

But I wasn’t alone. Most American workplaces are effectively dictatorships. They do not have to be this way.

Cooperatives are an established and growing form of doing business and organizations like Democracy at Work and The New Economy Coalition exist to help businesses transition and new ones form. Local governments are beginning to invest in the emergent cooperative economy and a handful of financiers already exist.

Cooperatives are an ideal we can work towards. But many of us find ourselves in workplaces today where power is purposefully unequal and where we have little formal say in how we work and why.

And while those conditions may be inherently authoritarian, that does not mean there is no room to cultivate democracy in our every day lives.

That was the subject of the session I led with Joe Amditis at SRCCON:POWER. Titled “Is this what democracy looks like?” we facilitated a conversation on democratic process and how to cultivate more democracy in our every day lives.

Here are the ways attendees plan to cultivate more democracy in their workplaces.

1. Conduct after action reviews

After action reviews are opportunities to discuss how a team performed a given task. It’s not just about the outcome of the project but about how the work was conducted. One attendee suggested it’s a retrospective that should be a fundamental part of your process, not just if things go wrong.

2. Build bridges for communication

Effective communication is a fundamental part of a democratic process but the first thing you need to do is build channels for communicating. One attendee mentioned that their role at work had changed and that they hadn’t had an opportunity to ask questions or be a part of the decision. Before they could ask their boss “Why?” they needed to build a bridge for communication.

3. Formalize equitable power relationships

Unless you formalize equitable relationships, you’re just relying on the goodwill of those in power. According to one attendee, there’s nothing like forming a union. But it’s easier said than done and organizing a union is a precarious task. More and more digital media companies are unionizing though and it’s a tried and true method for securing some level of workplace equity.

4. Practice the Socratic method

Calling someone out for being unjust can make us feel good but makes people feel attacked. Once they put their guard up, you can’t get anywhere in communicating about what just happened. One attendee suggested using the Socratic method by asking questions that stimulate critical thinking instead of making people defensive.

5. Learn about democratic process

One attendee told us our session “was a good consciousness raising exercise” and another mentioned that journalists talk about the role they play in democracy but don’t often think about what it means to be democratic. That’s why Joe and I decided to propose the session and we’re thankful for the organizers of SRCCON:POWER for giving us the opportunity. We’re also happy to run this session at your conference or for your organization, just reach out to one of us via direct message on Twitter.

For now, you can see the slides from our presentation, including resources and suggested readings, here. And find notes from our session here. (Thanks to notetaker Jennifer Brandel!)

Finally, another group activity during the session included folks working together to define and vote on a definition of democracy. The proposal and the vote tallies are listed below. They are in no particular order as multiple proposals were advanced by the group for further discussion based on the dot-mocracy rules found in the slides here.

  1. Democracy is a system that draws its credibility from representing and acting on the interest of as many voices as possible. (Green: 11; Yellow: 5; Red; 0)
  2. Democracy solicits involvement by giving access to tools to be heard, actively soliciting participation, making participation a free choice, accounting for inequalities and power, and building trust. Discussion is democracy is transparent and ideas are shared. Decision making in democracy is transparent, creates unity, accounts for impact, is open to change; and shares responsibility. (Green: 6; Yellow: 10; Red; 0)
  3. Democracy is a collective process that assumes all humans should have empowered voices and as much agency as possible in their lives. You can tell it has happened when someone with no obvious power has an idea or opinion that a group moves forward with. (Green: 8; Yellow: 8; Red; 0)
  4. Democracy at its worst creates an illusion of legitimacy while pitting people against each other and ignoring the most vulnerable but at its best provides fairness, equality through representation, and creates an accountable system of power. (Green: 8; Yellow: 7; Red; 1)
The concluding slide from our session.