3 Gotchas In Developing A Democratic Organization

Over the last year, Quick Left has grown rapidly both in numbers and as a company. During that time, I've been focused on refining our development process, figuring out which projects are the best fit, helping establish our culture, and determining our overall vision. One goal we've had throughout this process has been to run a business that truly values the team, yet remains successful and profitable. To that end, Becca and I had the chance to attend the WorldBlu Live conference a couple of weeks ago.

WorldBlu Live was an amazing and intensive 2 days as well as a wonderful platform to learn and share ideas and practical experiences with other business people. It was inspiring to be around successful folks who value their employees and work hard to cultivate a positive and creative workplace. During a conversation with Alex Khost, a UI Designer at, the idea of what it means to build a democratic workplace came up. This is a question that I’ve often reflected upon. In this post, I’d like to cover three common misconceptions about democratic workplaces.

Structure does not equal Hierarchy

One of the first things one might think to do in order to promote a collaborative work environment is to eliminate hierarchy. But in doing so, you’ll find that people often shy away from implementing and enforcing structure and rules; they think rules are the root of hierarchies. I’ve had experience with this firsthand in collective organizations — when something is “everyone’s job” it turns into “no one’s job” and things tend to not get done. Or worse, the majority of the work falls to only few people in the organization. Having structure and accountability to the business can be done without hierarchy, and when you’ve got more folks accountable, the less things feel hierarchical.

Freedom does not equal Permissiveness

Another common misconception is that workplace freedom quickly becomes a slippery slope to everyone doing whatever they want instead of what needs to be done. I’ve suffered from this misperception many times; for example, people ask for a flex schedule and turn it into a part time job. It comes down to accountability and transparency — you can give people the freedom they need to do their best work without creating the illusion that they have permission to do whatever they want.

Responsible Leadership does not equal Leadership By Consensus

Another perception of trying to promote a democratic organization is that you need to come to a consensus in decision making and that not doing so shows a lack of respect toward peoples’ opinions. For example, helping people get back on track when a discussion or meeting gets derailed is essential for getting things done, and doing so is a task of leadership. It is important to take in to account the viewpoints of employees, but it is also essential to know when those viewpoints start taking the focus off-track.

Learning how to run a business that is both successful and values the overall team has been a wonderful experience that will continue to challenge us as we grow. I’m looking forward to re-reading this blog post in a year to see what additional insights I’ll have by then!