Can we have democracy in our relationships? Yes!
Is it easy to practice democracy in our relationships on a daily basis? No, it is not.
The good news is that there are actionable steps that can help you implement today or this week to start the journey. In this article we will share easy tips in the most common relationships we deal with daily: business, education, and family.
We can also practice democracy in other common relationships, such as our romantic relationships, but this is a topic for another article.
Table of Contents
- Business Relationships: Employers can do more to empower their employees to the benefit of both. Empowering employees can start with simple steps such as surveying their opinions, giving them autonomy to implement changes and finally assuming responsibility for their results.
- Educational Relationships: Students need to be active participants in creating their own educational journey. Educators should learn to work together with the students to ensure the best learning outcomes.
- Relationships: democracy is about empowering children. As children grow, gradually they should be involved in more household activities ranging from doing chores to managing personal finances.
Ready to take some actions? Skip here to get some ideas.
Business And Professional Relationships: How To Bring Democracy At Work?
Tip: We suggest employers explore ways to give employees more autonomy. The first steps could involve opening clear lines of communication between employees and management, giving employees ownership over projects they propose, and rewarding employees who improve the organization.
Studies show that engaged employees are more productive.
A 2021 Gallup poll reported that businesses in the top quartile of engagement have 81% fewer absences, 18% higher sales, and 23% greater profitability compared to other businesses.1Robison, J. (2021, January 03). The Emotional State of Remote Workers: It’s Complicated. Retrieved January 12, 2021, from https://www.gallup.com/workplace/327569/emotional-state-remote-workers-complicated.aspx
The Gallup poll focused on traditional companies, i.e., autocratic ones. We already wrote about the pros and cons of leadership styles at work (autocratic vs democratic). To see the full article, please click here.
The general wisdom is that (autocratic) businesses are more efficient and productive. There is no need to build a consensus to reach a decision.
However, it is important to note that it is not always the smartest or the best who run companies. Even among the rank and file there is more potential than sometimes employers would like to recognize or see.
Empirical evidence from the experience of worker cooperatives, democratic enterprises, shows that distributed management among all employees builds productive and resilient companies.2 May 10, Posted on and 2017. “The Performance of Worker Cooperatives vs. Capitalist Firms.” Democracy at Work ([email protected]), https://www.democracyatwork.info/the_performance_of_workercooperatives. Accessed 10 Feb. 2021.
Yes, management and ownership in a democratic company are more complicated than in a traditional company with a single (or few) owner(s). However, democratic companies with a long tradition and experience in democratic management are more resilient and more productive, even during crisis.
The typical response of cooperatives in crisis is to lower the salaries of their worker-owners. There are also conventional businesses that have made headlines about their approach to handling the current crisis. One such example is Gravity Payments. During the crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, the founders decided to speak with their 200 employees and figure out how to bridge the $1 million monthly loss.
Instead of laying off 40 employees, which was one option, the employees identified ways to bridge the gap by volunteering to cut their salaries and reducing expenses such as travel and office.3 Price, Dan. “Opinion: This Company Pays Its Workers a $70,000 Minimum Salary, and That’s Helping It Weather the Coronavirus Crisis.” MarketWatch, https://www.marketwatch.com/story/how-giving-employees-a-70k-minimum-salary-is-helping-this-company-weather-the-coronavirus-crisis-2020-04-07. Accessed 10 Feb. 2021.
By opening the communication lines, employers can receive suggestions from their employees to improve inefficient processes. Employers can give their proactive employees the opportunity to improve certain working processes. If the results are positive, the company should reward these employees. This is how companies can innovate from within.
When employers give their employees ownership and control of certain business processes, they will help build the skills and confidence of these employees and they will produce better results for the company. Through this process, employers empower their employees to develop their skills.
It is unrealistic to expect that all companies will be democratic. Even the most common, traditional (autocratic) companies can engage employees by asking their opinions, giving them more autonomy in decision-making processes, and implementing some employee suggestions (as long as they are in line with the organizational goals and objectives).
Not all employees prefer to work in democratic enterprises or strive to be business owners. Some prefer to be told what to do, most of the time. However, democratizing the workplace can help all employees through personal empowerment.
To summarize, the first steps towards democratizing the company to drive engagement and productivity can involve opening the channels of communication. Then, give the proactive employees the tools, budget and support needed to implement the idea and finally measure the results. If it works, celebrate and reward. If it fails, learn from the lessons and share it with the rest of the team.
These are easy steps for any company to implement without changing the ownership and management structure.
Action Idea: Set up a regular quarterly meeting with your employees to discuss processes that the company can improve. Agree on actions that you can implement within a single quarter. By your next quarterly meeting, you can celebrate the achievements if you succeed or learn from the experience if you fail. If the changes the team proposes need longer timeframe, let us say a year, break down major milestones in four quarters to measure the progress during your scheduled quarterly meetings.
Teacher-Student Relationships: How To Empower Students?
Tip: We recommend taking childrens’ opinions towards education seriously. What do they want to learn? Do they have ideas on how to do it? Students should practice democracy at a young age by being part of the school’s governance and curriculum creation. This will prepare them to be better workers and citizens.
A democratic education model allows “students [to] choose their own activities and associate with whom they please.”4Democratic Schools. (2015, February 13). Retrieved January 12, 2021, from https://alternativestoschool.com/articles/democratic-schools/ In democratic schools, children are free to learn what they want, when they want, and how. These schools ensure that all age-groups are free to mingle with other age-groups. There is no age-bias, i.e. curricula based on the child’s age. Students choose what they want to learn based on their interests and aptitude.
In theory, a 10-year-old could take a class with an 18-year-old. Teachers do not direct the students in these schools, instead they act as their mentors. In democratic schools, it is common to hold weekly school meetings (or have governance bodies such as assemblies) where the entire staff and student-body attend and vote on rules of behavior.5Democratic Schools. (2015, February 13). Retrieved January 12, 2021, from https://alternativestoschool.com/articles/democratic-schools/
One of the most famous examples of a democratic school found in the United States is the Sudbury Valley School (SVS) in Framingham, Massachusetts. The school is a converted nineteenth-century mansion. According to Peter Gray and David Chanoff, SVS is a private day school that admits any student, ignoring past school records, from 4 years-old to an adult. It is accredited through the New England Association of Schools and Colleges and the independent School Association of Massachusetts. The school has no curriculum.
In 1986, Gray and Chanoff conducted a study of SVS and its past graduates. The staff believes that most of their education comes in the shape of informal conversations. If a student prefers a more structured form of education, all staff members will create a curriculum for whatever topic the student wishes to research. Additionally, the staff assists students in searching for extra-curricular apprenticeships in the surrounding area. To guarantee student representation, there are regular school meetings where the students are invited and they can advocate for their concerns.6Gray, P., & Chanoff, D. (1986). Democratic Schooling: What Happens to Young People Who Have Charge of Their Own Education? American Journal of Education, 94(2), 182-213. doi:10.1086/443842
Many parents are concerned with the amount of freedom their child has at a democratic school. They believe that they would not learn as much in such an environment. However, two different studies have found that many of those concerns are misplaced.
In 2014, a study concluded that there is a positive correlation between a democratic learning environment and the three dimensions to student engagement: cognitive, emotional, and behavioral. After randomly selecting students and faculty, a four-point Likert scale (0=never, 1=rarely, 2=sometimes, 3=often) was used to survey their satisfaction with the education model. For a more detailed look at this research, the paper can be found here.
Gray and Chanoff’s 1986 study surveyed the opinion of graduates after they had left SVS. The goal was to find how SVS may have impacted their education after leaving. Out of 82 graduates between 1970 and 1981, Gray and Chanoff were able to obtain 69 responses.7Gray, P., & Chanoff, D. (1986). Democratic Schooling: What Happens to Young People Who Have Charge of Their Own Education? American Journal of Education, 94(2), 182-213. doi:10.1086/443842 Here are some of the findings:
- Over 50% of graduates had either completed a degree or were working towards finishing one. In contrast, the national graduation rate for women over the age of 25 was 16.1% and for men over the age of 25 was 23.2%.
- Another 25% had gone to post-secondary schooling but chose not to finish;
- Of the surveyed that finished their bachelor studies, 6 were enrolled in graduate school or had received their graduate degree, 2 of those 6 were enrolled in a PhD program.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, between 1970 and 1981, the average percentage of high school graduates that attended college was about 50.1%.8Digest of Education Statistics, 1999. (n.d.). Retrieved January 15, 2021, from https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d99/d99t187.asp. The data from Gray and Chanoff shows that 75% of the SVS students attended college in some capacity, much higher than the national average of the time.9Gray, P., & Chanoff, D. (1986). Democratic Schooling: What Happens to Young People Who Have Charge of Their Own Education? American Journal of Education, 94(2), 182-213. doi:10.1086/443842
The typical US school educates students on the importance of democracy but fails to practice democracy in its educational model and on a regular basis. “Democratic Schools” are using the microenvironment of a classroom to facilitate hands-on experience for students to learn and practice democratic principles.10Democratic Schools. (2015, February 13). Retrieved January 12, 2021, from https://alternativestoschool.com/articles/democratic-schools/ In democratic schools, students participate in an assembly (much like the Congress) and vote on decisions that affect their learning outcomes.
Action Idea: Start the semester by allowing students to co-create part of the course syllabus with you (the teachers). Allow students to choose what they want to read, research, and how to do the final exam. For example, if students are in a history class, the final exam does not need to be in writing.
Allow students to create their own evaluation criteria and how they want to present the material they have learned during the semester. Some may choose to produce instructional videos, others may prepare typical PowerPoint presentations, some can do theatre performances, others may work as individuals and some as part of a group.
Think about what other skills the students may learn (e.g. teamwork, collaboration, crafting, structuring a project, implementing a project, delegating tasks in a group) by allowing them to take full ownership of the structure and evaluation criteria for the final exam they will create.
You can agree on certain guidelines such as the length of each presentation and key topics or ideas that each final exam project will cover. Let the students to play with the structure.
For more information about democratic schools, please visit the International Democratic Education Networks’ website.
Parent-Child Relationships: What Does Democratic Parenting Mean?
Tip: In many families, all decision-making power is held exclusively by the parents. It is also understandable because ultimately parents are liable for their children until the age of 18. However, each family can do more to empower their children and prepare them for participating in a democratic society.
At a time when most families have been confined to their households for months due to the pandemic, it may be worthwhile to consider what could lead to a greater satisfaction for the entire family. Ensuring that every member of the family is given equal opportunity to share their concerns is a positive way to educate children about democratic values. One way this could be done is for parents to host weekly meetings with all family members to talk about the household dynamics.
In these meetings, every member of the family, even the youngest children, are encouraged to state their arguments either for or against certain family guidelines. When they are young, they could vote and agree who and when will do the chores. As they grow and mature, the seriousness of the tasks would reflect this change; moving from chores to more serious matters, such as personal finances.
To teach children the value of their voice, parents must listen to their arguments with respect and patience. For example, Ari Honarvar, using her background in business and facilitation, suggests that families can adopt contracts into the structure to hold children accountable for what is agreed on in these meetings.11Ari Honarvar June 16, & Honarvar, A. (2018, June 16). I Run My Family Like a Democracy, Here’s Why. Retrieved January 12, 2021, from https://www.parents.com/parenting/better-parenting/style/how-to-live-in-a-democratic-family/ So, when there are sibling disputes about the chores, the written agreement (or schedule) can serve as means to conflict resolution.
Parents should gradually increase the responsibilities of their children and teach them how to manage their personal finances so that they can feel more empowered when they become adults. Managing money is one of those skills that they will need for the rest of their lives. As they grow, parents should give them more chores and responsibilities to manage.
Action Idea: For example, if the child is 5 years and he or she wants a PlayStation, then the parents could subsidize 95-100% of the cost. The children’s contribution can come in doing some basic chores or from saving allowance money.
When they are 10 years old, the parents’ subsidy can amount to 60%, and when they are 16, only 20% of the full cost of the PlayStation. This is just an example and adjust it to your context. The main point is that children need to learn the value of money at a young age through having some “skin in the game” and also understanding that it takes effort and time to make money.
These are just a few simple examples of how to instill the values of work, self-reliance, humility and respect for time and effort in children.
Now, it is time to summarize some key action steps to apply in our daily lives:
- Listen to the ideas and concerns of others. Simply listening to someone else without judgement can encourage the individual to feel more confident in expressing themselves again. This can help employers get better ideas to improve business processes that do not work.
- Give students the chance to define their own projects or exams. Teachers can encourage student participation through involving them in co-creating the syllabus or what the final project exam will be. Consider allowing students to create their own individual exams based on what they want to explore or study during the semester. Students will be more inspired to work on what they are interested in rather than what they are told to do by others.
- Start hosting family meetings this week! Harvard Business Review and Big Life Journal offer great tips to get established.