In a seminal and much-cited article on the subject of lead-ership, Lewin, Lippitt, and White (1939) coined the term demo-cratic-style leadership to refer to a method of managing that involved give and take between leaders, or managers, and the people whose jobs they were guiding. Later identified with group leadership, democratic leadership was valorized vis-a-vis auto-cratic leadership on one side and laissez-faire leadership on the other.
One may readily infer the bias in favor of democratic leadership style from the mere naming of the other style terms. The autocratic style of leadership has been linked to the so-called scientific management methods envisioned by Frederick Taylor, who in the early part of the 20th century was influen-tial in devising a strategy of workplace behavior meant to elim-inate uncertainty and chaos in the workplace. The problem was that managers tended to leave employees out of the policy-imple-mentation equation.
Supposedly, scientific management would eliminate the adversary relationship between labor and manage-ment. Instead, “science, the impartial arbiter, would decide” (Kanigel, 1996, p. 45). Yet “science” inevitably meant top-down, hierarchical management practices: “Taylor’s experts and engineers did the thinking, while you were consigned to mindless doing” (Kanigel, 1996, p. 51). Laissez-faire leadership, as the term implies, fully em-powers the group members.
The actual leader recedes, but the group is responsible for its decisions. One trouble with that style is that the leader also withdraws as a resource, unless the group specifically asks for help, and intragroup rivalries and compe-tition can develop that can limit group effectiveness (Lewin, Lippitt, & White, 1939). There may be no shared vision about the group’s objective. One may also infer the potential for the tyranny of the majority, a term attributed to Tocque-ville in his 1839 book Democracy in America.
That idea also sur-faces in democratic-style management, but a leader changes the anarchic process by guiding the group away from internal power plays and toward unified group objectives. After World War II, influential management philosophy shifted toward ideas of democratic-style leadership with the work of W. Edwards Deming, whose famous Fourteen Points of man-agement included calls for management, not labor, to assume re-sponsibility for quality and for managers to act as leaders who clearly articulated work objectives and supported labor in im-plementing them (Walton, 1986).
Yet Deming’s management ideas were more wide-ranging than leadership per se, and the style associated with group dynamics is the focus of this research. Democratic-style leadership is consistent with management theory that views workers, or members of the leader’s group, as resources rather than as drains or something to be coped with or otherwise got over. Even where some hierarchical struc-tures are in place, communication processes are meant to travel up, down, and laterally within an organization, and management practice diffuses decision-making events “throughout the organization.
Even important decisions involve input from employees at all levels” (Hamiton & Parker, 2001, p. 58). The democratizing influence of such practice implies that communication will be interactive, not simply a matter of transmission of messages (commands) from managers to employees. The implication, too, is that such communication must take place in an environment of openness, honesty, and shared confi-dence (Hamilton & Parker, 2001, p. 58), which tends to yield cooperation and productivity.
Because enterprise activity is necessarily collaborative, communication effectiveness is of paramount concern. Openness for leaders involves disclosure (sharing) of information with subordinates plus the reception or feedback from them. The authors of the best-selling One Minute Manager valorize simple, direct, and honest explanation of what is expected by management of workers, together with regular follow-up and evaluation of performance, and a commitment on the part of management to both people and results (Blanchard & Johnson, 1981, p. 8).
That is, the more a manager facilitates subordinates’ work (p. 19), the more likely the workers as members of the leader’s group are to be productive and to produce high-quality work. Leadership that focuses on facilitating rather than defining the details or methods of the work of employees starts with making clear “what our responsibilities are and what we are being held accountable for” (p. 27). Realism about goals feeds realistic work habits and attention to achievement of those goals.
As leaders, managers must both permit and enable disclosure and/or feedback by group members in an environment of psycholo-gical safety (Hamilton & Parker, 2001), which is also a hallmark of democratic systems. Equally, managers must be alert to non-verbal as well as verbal cues that may supply information about a group’s performance and attitude. Hamilton and Parker give the (nonverbal) example of the prestige attached to corner offices as having the potential to affect the quality of workplace morale.
Time management, too, sends messages about the kind of equality associated with democracy: Being late for meetings may stigmatize employees (Hamilton & Parker, 2001, p. 160) but send the message that some people (for example, managers) who are late when others (for example, secretaries) are on time are en-titled to be so. To be effective, democratic styles of leader-ship lead by example, with leaders asking nothing of subordi-nates that they are not equipped to do themselves.
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