Managing Your Business like a Democracy? Here’s Why You’ll Fail

When it comes to business, not all opinions have equal weight and not everyone should be asked for their opinion. It's a business, not a democracy, so you better own it.

Imagine this: you are anxiously laying on the surgery table — sweaty palms, labored breathing, and only a thin shred of gown separating your naked body from the clinical steel operating table.

The brain surgeon leans over and reassures you that you have made the right choice, that this will be over before you know it, and there is nothing to fear here.

Business is not a democracy.

Then, just as the anesthetist is placing the mask over your face, you hear the surgeon say, “Nurse, where do you think we should make the first incision?”

The nurse, wearing a grave forced smile, responds with, “We should slice in just above the right eye”.

The surgeon says, “Lab technician, your thoughts?”

Eager to impress, the lab technician jumps and shouts, imploring the surgeon to cut in from behind the head.

The surgeon then yells out to the janitor in the hall just outside: “Janitor, where do you think we should start?” The janitor just shrugs his shoulders and continues mopping the hallway.

At this point you are fighting the anesthesia, your pulse is racing, and your cold sweat has turned hot. As the surgeon starts taking a vote, you summon your last reserves of free will, rip the IV drips out, and bolt for the exit.

The point of this story is that like a finely tuned operating theater, your business is not a democracy. Not all opinions have equal weight, and not everyone should be asked for their opinion.

I’ve seen businesses created by friends and our customers fail to reach their potential because the founders or senior management feel they need to make every decision as a quorum.

Suddenly you have people with not a single marketing bone in their body voting on a logo. Then there’s a vote on what shift hours support people need to work so as to seem “fair”. Worse still, you suddenly realize you’ve wasted an hour debating what color the “buy now” button should be on your web site. You’re never getting that hour back — it’s gone.

I’m guilty of this, too.

In the first iteration of WORK[etc], I had wanted to include a “powered by WORK[etc]” logo on the emails and web forms our free customers built with our product. I had hoped to get some free exposure and maybe ride on a viral tidal wave.

Myself and my marketing intern were all for it, but the development team were against it. The developers thought it was just “not cool”.

Now because I had opened up the decision for discussion, everyone involved suddenly felt they had a vested interest. Junior-me didn’t have the confidence to make a decision against the wishes of the majority.

While my idea may not have been “cool”, making a decision that was not in the best interests of the business but in the best interests of democracy probably ended up costing us thousands in potential customers and exposure. My fail here was to take advice from unqualified people and then put an important decision to a pseudo-vote.

Business is not a democracy, but neither is it a dictatorship. It should be like a finely-tuned operating theater — information from the most knowledgeable people is fed up the line to the surgeon and clear, decisive actions are sent back down.

When your business runs like a democracy, decisions will fail to get made. Even worse, meek decisions are made and you set off on a course into the beige sunset of mediocrity. The simplest of decisions consume valuable time and end up becoming a major chore for everyone involved.

Business is not a democracy, but neither is it a dictatorship. It should be like a finely-tuned operating theater — information from the most knowledgeable people is fed up the line to the surgeon and clear, decisive actions are sent back down.

Put simply, internalize only those opinions from people qualified to provide a knowledgeable opinion. Discuss options only with those people knowledgeable in the topic. Never put decisions to a vote.

It is your business and your team. Make sure you own it.

  • David McGarry

    Reminds me of the adage – ‘a camel is a horse designed by a committee’.

    I have worked in many large government agencies where it is so hard to come to a simple decision because it has been deemed that every department has to have their say.

    Getting 2 people to agree on something subjective like design is often difficult – getting 20 to agree is near impossible.

    The way I think about it, you wouldn’t (usually) ask a design team to decide what database technology or programming language a system is going to be developed in. There has to be a reasonable separation of concerns when it comes to decision making.

    Every orchestra has a conductor, every movie has a director. There has to be that one person that ultimately takes all opinions on board but is strong enough to make a final decision.

    This is why company or organisational logo re-designs can run into a million dollar projects, because there are often too many cooks and the end result is a dog’s dinner!

  • David Jones

    Nice article. When I take a project, I take complete ownership of it and feel responsible for every outcome. Management is a constant balancing act between productivity, cost, and employee moral. I will ask the opinions of those whom I feel are knowledgeable or just have plain good business sense. For others involved I may simply explain the plan and the strategy behind it and ask for thoughts. That way I’m running by them a plan already created and not getting them involved at the start when it can get chaotic. In my experience the way to really get everyone behind an initiative is to get the those who have the knowledge involved and make sure the others fully understand the strategy behind the tasks they must complete to make the project a success

  • Thomas Lawler

    I can’t say I have much experience with this in my professional life, although I have had some experiences in college group projects. I do however appreciate “firm” leadership, which gives organizations direction / purpose.

    Generally I ask the opinions of my work superiors before starting a project, and typically have them sign off on my approach. I do however trust that these people have a good grasp on the information that I am presenting, which eases the ability to trust their opinions.

    When I am assigned a project from a work superior, I always take complete ownership and responsibility for every outcome. (Like David has noted above) Sometimes you have to bite the bullet in order to make a decision, and reach a conclusion.

  • Thanks for the post, Dan, and the personal anecdote.

    Our team does consulting work in Lean Manufacturing and Innovation Engineering. Both disciplines empower all team members and encourage a free flow of information. There is a lot to be said for an empowered workforce. It is understood, though, that the boss has to make the final decision and the tough choices based on the big picture.

  • John Belchamber

    A great point Daniel and one we’ve all experienced I suspect.
    The trick is to make sure that you have the right people, in the right places, performing the right tasks. That way, the right decisions get made by the right people, at the right time.
    Leadership is always a challenge, but the trick is knowing when to let the decisions be made elsewhere and, when to make them yourself.

  • Tabitha Mills

    Nice article. I have found that be including business members especially frontline staff that I have successfully grown my business. I have staff who feel empowered and have a sense of ownership. This has led to many progressive changes that were made with minimal resistance. Look forward to more articles like this.

  • Branden

    Well, it shouldn’t be a democracy, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it should be an oligarchy either. Sometimes asking opinions or advice from someone outside the inner circle can help a) generate ideas or b) spot issues that were overlooked. That doesn’t mean the janitor should be involved in the company’s direction, but maybe the low-level assistant might notice that you’re forgetting a whole demographic (or that your new slogan could be misinterpreted).

  • Tami Neer

    Creating that “dream team” so you can delegate to people does not mean giving up decision making to others. Having ideas and opinions will help you make the best final decision. Yes, you, making the call for your company, on a decision that impacts you and your team.

  • Louise Roberts

    Interesting article. As a small business we value the opinions of our employees and often invite them to make suggestions and help with decision making processes. They also know that the ulitmate decision lies with the Directors but I do think it makes people feel valued and part of the bigger picture. I do take on board that not everyone should be asked on every topic. Certainly food for thought!

  • TechGro

    Enjoyed the article! Work etc is an instrumental part to my business
    success. It is awesome to have this
    instrument anywhere I go. The leaders of
    worketc have taken great care in listening to their users to gain valued
    feedback in what we want in both in office and out! Awesome work, worketc…keep it up and thank

  • Good article. It’s a huge dilemma for or companies leaders. We think that we are always right. It’s a trap. But when company is in problem, then is crucial intuition. And only leader has a intuition, employee don’t. Maybe it’s a best options to have small, well organized team, with good established decision making process, to lead company.

  • Interesting article as usual Dan. Totally get the need to take ownership and sometimes not hurt feelings. I think this goes for employees further down the chain as well. If they feel passionate about it, a strong leader will take the time to evaluate the reasoning and make a sound (but not always affirming) decision on the matter. Great thoughts from this article.

  • brianbro

    It should feel like a democracy — people who want to weight in should be allowed to weight in — but the final decision should be an authoritative one ,i.e. head of the department responsible or the Chief.

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