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Why choose greater democracy - even when it's hard

You know the difference between times when you feel highly motivated and focused, and times when you don't? Social change organizations need people who feel the energy of motivation and focus – particularly in light of the climate and inequality crises. As they worsen, this is how we want people who are committed to justice to be able to approach their work. People who don't feel agency and authority over their own work or the broader direction of their organization don't tend to behave this way (check out Dan Pink's research on motivation for more on this topic). This is one reason why we need to make sure that our organization are democratic.

One challenge in our culture right now is that we misunderstand democracy. We think of it as everyone having a say, or majority rule - like a referendum. When we imagine something more radically democratic, we imagine consensus. But neither of these are what an ideal form of democracy looks like. There's another model that is much more functional of participatory democracy, where people have influence over decisions in light of how much they participate in making them – including being informed about the parametres and consequences of the decision – and how much the decision will affect them (i.e. how much they are the ones who will bear the consequences of the decision).

In order to practice this kind of democracy in organizational life, one thing that is important is learning how to truly and meaningfully delegate decisions. This is something I've been committed to - and there are are many times it is hard! One of the best examples that I reflect on regularly was a time I was advising and supporting a hiring process in an organization I worked for. The hiring manager did not report to me, but as I was the person at the organization with the most expertise in hiring they had asked me to help by serving on the hiring committee.

In this case, the hiring manager and I had a difference of opinion on who was the best candidate for the role. They were really excited about someone I thought was overqualified and would not be stimulated in the role, and would not stay. It was more of a learning role for someone recently entering the workforce, and unfortunately in our small organization there was no possibility for advancement. They also did not meet the standards for authenticity and informed enthusiasm that I describe in my post on hiring.

This was a really tricky situation. This hiring manager was just starting to be able to build a team, so because they were going to be responsible for the consequences of this decision and overseeing this person's work, it was important that they feel empowered to make the decision. Even though in the end allowing them to make this decision did result in a hiring fail (i.e. a new hire who doesn't stay for more than a year) this was the right decision.

I reflect on whether I should have tried to persuade him more. But this is tricky. Even though I was not this person's supervisor, I was above them in the organizational hierarchy. There's a certain point at which persuasion feels disempowering, where the person doesn't feel like they can say no, even if you're saying they can. This is one of those situations when you're trying to create a culture that is participatory and empowering that requires real mindfulness and caution, but it's hard to know what the right level of when you're trying to offer perspective based on your greater expertise but also making sure that they know they can make a decision – that they have power over the decision that will have a bigger impact on them and that they will have to take responsibility for. You also want them to know that they will be well supported if the decision doesn't work out, encouraged to talk through what happened with that decision (i.e. reflect on mistakes), and what might look different in the future – to fail forward.

In many cases, when you're in a position of authority and you want people to feel empowered, you will have to let things happen that aren't the way you would have done them. Nine times out of ten this turns out better than you thought, and you learn some humility. This is a crucial leadership skill in service of organizations where people tend to feel very motivated, focused and empowered.

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