Why Companies are not Democracies & That’s (Probably) a Good Thing

Just a year after they made the switch from aristocracy to democracy, in 499 BC, the Athenians received a fellow Greek leader visiting from the east. His name was Aristagoras, and he had an interesting proposition to discuss with the people of Athens. The visit would prove to be the beginning of the biggest test this young government faced, and twenty-five centuries later, the lessons the Athenians learned remain as relevant as ever for today’s laptop warriors.

Aristagoras ruled the Ionian city of Miletus. The Ionians were Greeks who had previously emigrated from what is present-day Greece to the coast of Lydia, in present-day Turkey (see the map). They lived, however, under the thumbs of the Persians, meaning each city’s ruler was effectively a Persian-friendly tyrant — Aristagoras included. But because these Ionian cities remained ever hungry to expand, the Persians had to force them into agreements that prevented them from attacking each other. With his own expansionist plans stymied by such agreements, Aristagoras privately yearned to gain control of the cities neighboring Miletus. But going on the offensive without the Persians’ approval would mean disobeying and inevitably warring with the greatest military power of the time. So Aristagoras set off instead to the Greek mainland in search of allies.

The biggest Greek superpower at the time was Sparta. It was here Aristagoras traveled to first. Sparta relied on a hierarchical system so tightly controlled that one might think of it as an extreme version of today’s companies’ org charts. The Spartan king, Cleomenes, ruled from the top, while his military leadership ran all of his internal affairs. Aristagoras met Cleomenes and pitched him on the idea of joining the fight against the Persians. In what we can imagine was an ancient version of a sales presentation, Aristagoras argued that Sparta and Miletus are part of the same nation and that as brothers they should stand as one against Persian injustices. We know that he also spoke of great treasures awaiting the victors, while he downplayed the difficulties of such a momentous campaign. Cleomenes was widely regarded as a brilliant tactician, and Aristagoras knew the Spartan ruler’s experience would matter tremendously in the success of this fight. Cutting right to the chase, however, Cleomenes asked how far away these cities lay and how long his armies would need to march to attack them. Learning that the travel alone would be months undertaking, it became crystal clear to Cleomenes that such an expedition would be suicide, as it was very difficult for any army at that time to support soldiers over such a great distance. The Spartans passed.

Desperate, Aristagoras moved to plan B: Athens!

Because Athens was a (direct) democracy, he did not meet alone with a specific leader but rather had to make his sales pitch in front of all voting citizens. Each citizen had equal voting power, independent of their skill, and this time Aristagoras’ persuasive arguments did the trick. His appeals to brotherly love, and his call to arms against Persian injustice, combined with his promises of great riches, were met by the Athenians’ roars of support. The pro-war mob’s excited shouts drowned out the fewer, yet better-informed voices of those wanting to avoid the war entirely.

The Athenians voted to join the fight, and as foreseen by the Spartan king, the war was a disaster. Almost as soon as the Athenians stepped foot on Persian soil, they were massacred. Not only that, but Darius, the Persian king, was so pissed off by the Athenian aggression that he sent an invasion force of his own to deal out his retribution. Not the best start for the Greek democracy!

Democracy in the Workplace

In spite of this near-fatal mistake, democracy survived the Persians, if only barely. In the aftermath, this form of government would fade into a cone of shadow for thousands of years before re-emerging again into the fullness of light. But democracy did so by assuming a slightly different format, one that seeks to avoid catastrophes like the one our little story addresses. Nowadays, most of us live in representative democracies, meaning we vote for leaders to represent our interests rather than voting directly on the issues ourselves, as the Athenians had done in the past.

But the direct spirit of the Athenian democratic ideal lives on in the hearts and minds of today’s employees, including myself. Whenever we see decisions being made in our workplace that we don’t agree with, our inflated egos invoke these Athenian ideals: “If our leaders would have just asked us about it … We would have avoided this mistake!”

Democratic principles made their way into the workplace in the 1960s. The first form workplace democracy took was employee ownership, where employees gained an equity share in the business they worked for. In political terms this innovation transformed employees into citizens, therefore giving them a greater emotional stake in the company’s success. This is pretty much the norm in all tech companies today. Most companies even go one step further, complementing this innovation with participatory management as a way to cement democratic principles in the organisation’s decision-making processes.

Democratic decision making is more popular than ever. I’ve witnessed this firsthand, both as a founder of a fast-growing startup and as an employee in one of today’s tech unicorns. But do we understand — I mean, really understand — the responsibilities that come with the power we’re asking for? Do we really have meaningful things to contribute to the decision-making process? Or, are our egos allowing us to repeat the mistakes of early democratic Athens?

Perhaps the biggest irony in our drive to have our voices heard in the decision-making process is that while we all list democracy as a value we hold dear, we also list workplace politics as the ONE thing we despise most about our jobs. But the thing is, democracy is all about politics, which includes an open dialog of ideas, and healthy conflict and debate on (potentially) uncomfortable topics.

It might well be that democracy is misunderstood. My experience seems to indicate that most people confuse equality with democracy. But democracy is a system of government, not an actual state of equality. Equality means that constituents enjoy equal rights with governing bodies (managers and other stakeholders) and in relation to each other (fellow employees). But having equal rights does not mean having equal talents, equal abilities, or equal knowledge to the person in the corner office, nor the person at the workstation beside ours. It assuredly does not mean that “everyone’s opinion about anything is as good as anyone else’s.” Athenians made that mistake, and it almost got them wiped out.

“The claim to equality, outside the strictly political field, is made only by those who feel themselves to be in some way inferior. What it expresses is precisely the itching, smarting, writhing awareness of an inferiority which the patient refuses to accept.”
— CS Lewis

What do we really want?

Democracy is politics. We want the former but not the latter. So what is it that we actually want? Can it be that we package a lot of our specific desires under one fairly misunderstood term — democracy? I think that’s exactly what’s going on, and our infatuation with democracy hides some very concrete and specific things.

The most important thing we desire is to be heard. We want people to listen to us. We want to be able to share our ideas and what we’ve learned through our education, efforts, and experience with our managers. And we want to know that our ideas and knowledge are being considered in the decisions our managers make.

We also want to know the reasons behind the decisions made by our executives. We may disagree with the end result, but we believe we deserve an explanation of the thought process that went into their reaching their conclusions. While we often won’t get what we want or think is best for the company, we recognise that we’re better served by a well-informed leader (like our Spartan friend, Cleomenes) who helps us to understand his or her decision-making process. #transparency

Finally, we strive for autonomy. Studies have shown that we get the greatest satisfaction at work when we get the freedom to choose our own goals. As long we remain aligned with the long-term objectives of the company we represent, we want to set our own objectives and deadlines. We want to be treated as partners and not like servants.

None of these things require the Athenian-style direct democracy that we seem to cherish so much. Aristagoras showed us the perils of such a system, one in which well-crafted messages can get majority approval, while not having to face a healthy pushback from the few informed experts. It’s noble to want to be more engaged in the decision making process but if we demand the wrong things we may end up with the worst outcomes, much like the ancient Athenians. Frustrated and confused!


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