Get on the democratic workplace train, or else …

So Generation Y (or Millennials) don’t like taking orders? Well, it’s not that simple, but a great many articles, interviews, and blog posts have been written on how Millennials want a different kind of workplace and have a different life purpose motivation than the predecessors (like me) that they’re overlapping with. I’m not sure I want to be lumped in with the predecessors and I don’t think one can generalize about this with accuracy, but there are some undeniable trends. Numerous studies show that Millennials (mid-30s and lower) are desirous of work that is meaningful over that which is simply lucrative, and of workplaces that are less authoritarian and more democratic. I think what is really going on is, Millennials are at a life stage where they can act on these things more freely than the older crowd too vested in a floundering system. But those younger voices, and motivations, may just be what the doctor ordered, for all of us.

Simon Anderson, the completely unstuffy CEO of web hosting and cloud services company, DreamHost, says as much. Here’s an excerpt from an interview I did with Simon at WorldBlu LIVE 2013, a conference dedicated to celebrating and fostering democratic principles in the workplace.

Simon landed the job of CEO at DreamHost in a total embrace of the workplace values he describes in that clip. The 100+ staffers at DreamHost were knee deep in the selection process, crafting interview questions and eventually grilling the final contestants in a town hall meeting where the final two made their case for the job and answered questions in front of the whole company. Simon says it was intense, but very rewarding and educational, giving him an opportunity to better understand and be understood by those he would be working for and with.

There will always be plenty of voices who discount the value of the DreamHost approach to running, and defining a company. Some will say it won’t work in a larger organization, although healthcare giant DaVita with 50,000 employees, which was saved and transformed on a similar foundation, proves them wrong. There are many ways to flatten, and democratize a workplace. Anyone thinking knows there is no singular approach for every situation. No doubt, the casinoization of Wall Street, and much of American life for that matter, has not delivered lasting, meaningful value. It’s easy to see why Milleannials find the path many of their parents trod to be both undesirable and increasingly impractical. Moving up the corporate ladder isn’t a phrase one hears much anymore. Many of the rungs on those ladders have been removed, and a great many corporations have opted for a holding-company culture over the vision they were founded on as they struggle to stay on top in Milton Friedman’s canonized world of maximized profit over everything else.

Times like these often reveal gateways to new models. And a generation looking for more agility and a restoration of meaning in work and life may just be the fan needed to blow the smog away from those gateways. Barry Salzberg, global CEO of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Ljmited, wrote these words last year in an article for Forbes.

My organization examined the opinions of 1,000 millennials at Deloitte member firms regarding the impact of business on society. We found that more than half of them believe that in the future business will have a greater impact than anyone else in solving society’s biggest challenges. And 86% of them believe business will have at least as much potential as government to meet society’s challenges. Clearly, taken as a whole, millennials do not see business as a waste.

Refreshing. One of the characteristics of a more democratic workplace is optimism. We can never have enough of that. And the principles inherent in a democratic workplace — purpose and vision, transparency, dialogue and listening, and decentralization — to name a few, are the solid foundation the workplace is built on. It’s the same foundation that has led to any discernible amount of liberty whether in businesses or governments, or our homes. And it’s the only sustainable foundation for innovation.


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  1. Hi Scott, thanks for this article. I am wondering about the claim that democratic businesses can not grow large (although there are many good examples that prove that they can e.g. Semco, Mondragon, …) the question for me really is do they need to be large? Wouldn´t it be interesting to see many small to medium business that are democratic and serve only their local community or citizens in their country. The thought is of course going slightly against globalization which in my personal opinion is not a bad thing as long as globalization turns out to be more fair. But it would be interesting to see the societal change coming along with a more localized global economy shaped by many small democratic businesses.

    1. Allan,
      Thanks for the comment. I couldn’t agree more. I think the discussion of the relevance of a freedom-centered workplace environment to large orgs is an easy approach, and maybe one of the more obvious questions, but you’re very right that the whole topic begs the larger question of what is the best business size for success incorporating a democratic approach. Also, what kind of change in business approaches is the world crying out for? I agree with you and many others (ex. Douglas Rushkoff, author of “Life Inc.”) that our global system, in many ways steeped in cronyism and upwards wealth transfer, is ripe for reform and local competition. I think we’ll see a lot more local economies cropping up out of necessity and people’s desire for something more sustainable. Sadly, I think looking to most governments, particularly the largest ones, for support is wasted energy. As Douglas Rushkoff and David Stockman have stated, government has all to often become the enforcement arm for the multi-national corps.

      1. Scott,
        I actually went today to a very good talk of Professor Roberto Mangabeira Unger and he promoted several very interesting ideas. It is slightly off topic to this discussion but still interesting, he suggested that what an interesting approach to changing society in a positive way, to lift up all people to the same level, we need to approach the problem from three perspectives: political, economic and education. The talk will be available as podcast soon, if you are interested I can send you a link to it.

        My business partner and I are actually working on something similar to workplace democracy. We want to create a business that is run by an online community to which anyone can join, we call it stakeholder democracy. The thought is that a business has not only responsibility towards its employees, but to its customers, consumers, suppliers, and of course general society.

        1. Allan,
          I’d love to hear the podcast when you can send me a link. Post it as a comment here for others to link to as well. Thanks for the thoughtful discussion.

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