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Democratic leadership, also known as shared leadership or participative leadership encourages participation, brings more viewpoints to the table, and helps in team building.

No two leaders have the exact same leadership style - they all lead their teams or organizations in their own particular way. But it is possible to divide leaders into particular leadership styles and analyze those styles to get an idea of possible ways to lead.

One exciting and interesting form of leadership is the democratic leadership style, which allows employees to participate in the decisions of their team.

Being a democratic leader isn’t for everyone, but it’s a very effective form of leadership for many managers, executives, and CEOs.

This guide will cover everything you need to know about democratic leadership: what it is, the advantages and disadvantages of this leadership style, and what it looks like in action.

Let’s get started!

Being a good listener is absolutely critical to being a good leader; you have to listen to the people who are on the front line. - Richard Branson

What is democratic leadership?

Democratic leadership is a type of leadership style where the leader makes decisions based on the input of everyone on the team.

The leader makes the final decision, of course, but every employee gets their voice heard and their opinions considered during the decision-making process.

Democratic leadership is also known as participative leadership since employees participate actively in decisions.

Democratic leadership might seem counterintuitive - after all, isn’t leadership about making decisions unilaterally and decisively?

But true leadership also comes from taking the thoughts, experiences, and opinions of others into account as well.

Employees at every level have valuable ideas and information to contribute, and democratic leadership allows this participation to happen on a regular basis.

Characteristics of democratic leadership

Democratic leadership is characterized by a collaborative approach to decision-making. Team members are regularly asked for their input and opinions on decisions related to upcoming projects, strategic initiatives, or changes the team or company is considering.

Responsibility is shared among the group as well because everyone gets to have their say. And team members feel empowered to speak up and take a stand because their team leader encourages this behavior and actively listens.

In the democratic leadership process, ideas are offered freely and received without judgment. The diversity of views and experiences on the team is respected, and these views are shared openly so the team can come to a well-informed decision.

Rather than relying on a single person to make every decision, democratic leadership leans on employee involvement and the wisdom of the group to steer the ship.

Democratic leadership can be used by leaders in any industry, from small nonprofits to big international corporations.

But like any leadership style, the democratic approach has distinct advantages and disadvantages and may not be right for every organization.

Looking at the pros and cons closely can help you determine if you should give the democratic leadership process a try yourself.

Advantages of democratic leadership

Democratic leadership is a highly effective leadership style for many organizations. And it provides multiple advantages for those who choose this leadership style.

1. Increased creativity and innovation

Ideas flow very freely in a team with a democratic leader because sharing thoughts and expressing opinions are encouraged.

This free flow of ideas without judgment means team members are encouraged to come up with creative solutions and innovations that can benefit the whole group or even the entire organization.

Working together to openly discuss issues and solve problems also means that fresh ideas come regularly to the team. It offers options to the leader making the final call on decisions.

2. Gains in productivity

Employees are more engaged and perform at their best when they are heard and valued at work.

Democratic leadership ensures all employees on the team are heard because they can freely express their opinions, and provide inputs for important decisions that affect them.

This gives their work meaning and autonomy, which leads to increased engagement. And since highly engaged teams are 17% more productive than ones with low engagement rates, your team could be more productive under a democratic leadership style.

3. More diverse ideas

When decisions are made by just one person or a group of two or three people, there’s probably not much diversity of experience or views in the room considering all the options and facts.

But when you open up the floor and the decision-making process to a whole group of employees, they will bring their range of experiences and thoughts to the table.

This increases the diversity of ideas being shared, which makes your decision-making process more effective as you consider all the possible angles before making a final choice.

4. Builds a stronger team

Democratic leadership encourages everyone on a team to come together and participate equally. This emphasis on cooperation and partnership builds a strong team that collaborates effectively on big decisions and small tasks.

And since democratic leadership encourages treating everyone with respect, the bonds the team builds will have a strong foundation for success.

5. Trains future leaders

As employees participate actively in making decisions, they will get a sense of how higher-level decisions are made. They will also get a first-hand view of the leadership process, and get practice sharing ideas confidently and exercising authority.

This is all great training for the future leaders of your company and will prepare your top employees for a future leadership role.

Disadvantages of democratic leadership

The advantages of the democratic leadership style are real, and they are powerful. But this leadership style doesn’t work for every person or every organization, so you should carefully consider the downsides as well before you adopt this leadership style.

1. Slower decision-making

Gathering the input of a whole team, discussing the options openly, and working together to make the final decision is not a swift process.

Your decision-making might be stronger, but it will also certainly be slower when you lead using democratic principles at work.

Since every idea must be thoroughly discussed with the group, and everyone’s ideas must be truly considered, this is not a way to make fast decisions.

2. Negative emotions can arise

While everyone’s ideas and input are valued in the democratic leadership process, not every employee has the same capacity for generating effective solutions and problem-solving.

That means some employees will see their ideas implemented more often than others. And that can lead to resentment and frustration down the road if these negative emotions are not carefully handled.

Emotional intelligence is a key component of effective democratic leadership for this reason.

3. Creates the potential for procrastination

If a leader is loath to make a decision because they’re worried about the impact or unsure of their skills, they may turn to the democratic style of leadership as a way to procrastinate or avoid responsibility.

Instead of making a decision, these leaders turn to their team for ideas and wait for someone else to tell them which ideas are good.

This approach certainly encourages collaboration, but it also slows down decision-making and allows for procrastination to creep into the process.

4. Can be poorly defined

Democratic leadership is a style of leadership that can take many forms. That’s often good because leaders can tailor the style to their preferences and personality.

But it also means it’s possible to define the style simply by the whim of the leader, not by following real democratic principles.

Leaders can believe they’re using this style when they’re actually not soliciting feedback or opinions from their team members in an effective way at all.

5. Doesn’t work well in a crisis

When a crisis hits, leaders usually need to take fast and decisive action. The slow, collaborative, open process of democratic decision-making does not lend itself well to moments when an urgent response is required.

Leaders who are used to relying on feedback from their team may struggle to confidently make decisions by themselves when the situation demands action.

6. Requires a level of critical thought.

Not every workplace, or team, is well-suited to a democratic leadership style. Since the opinions and thoughts of everyone are valued equally, it works best if you have a team of people who are skilled in critical thinking and well-educated.

Otherwise, team members may not feel confident enough to offer their opinions. Or they could suggest ideas that don’t have real value because they don’t understand the problem well enough.

Employees need to be able to offer meaningful feedback and effective problem-solving for the democratic leadership style to work well.

Key takeaways

Democratic leadership is highly effective for many teams and organizations. It allows leaders to hear a diverse range of opinions, get creative solutions to problems, and build a future pool of experienced leaders who know how to make decisions.

This open and collaborative approach to leadership promotes equality and teamwork in the workplace.

But it also requires a commitment to a clearly defined decision-making process, a pool of employees who are strong critical thinkers, and a realization that these decisions will be made slowly in order for this leadership style to work in most organizations.

Democratic leadership is just one of many leadership styles that may work for you, so it’s important to consider the advantages and disadvantages carefully before you embark on this leadership journey.

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Kathleen O'Donnell

Kathleen O'Donnell LinkedIn

Kathleen is a freelance writer and employee communications and culture expert, with 6+ years of experience in corporate internal communications.