Democratizing Work: Why and How

Part One: Organizational design principles

Merrelyn Emery1 draws on an international body of theory and practice to support her case for the democratization of work. In discussing how this can be achieved, she looks at the surprisingly simple world of organizational design principles, and argues for an employee-centered redesign process. Worker participation needs to be supported by binding enterprise bargaining agreements (EBAs). By extension, in transition and in day-to-day practice, workplace democracy needs healthy, independent unions.

A famous series of social experiments was carried out in the United States from 1938 to 1940, to learn about autocracy and democracy. The participants were boys organized into clubs, each with leaders adopting different leadership styles. The researchers soon decided to include a third “social climate”; alongside autocracy and democracy, they studied laissez-faire (which, they believed, arose from a misunderstanding of democracy).2

In short, the study revealed stark differences between the three modes. In autocracy, the centrepiece and focus of the work was the leader. In democracy, it was the group. In laissez-faire, there was none.

The autocratic leader made rules, dictated activities, and praised and criticized personally. The democratic leader discussed rules and encouraged group decision-making about goals, with technical help if required. The democratic leader was fact-oriented in praise and blame, and was a group member in spirit. There were no rules in laissez-faire; the leader supplied materials and gave information only if asked, did not participate in the group work, did not praise or blame, and did not attempt to regulate work.

The three structures resulted in very different behaviours. The autocracy group showed two major clusters of behaviour: submissive and aggressive. In the submissive groups, individual boys became dependent on the leader with virtually no capacity to initiate group action. In the aggressive groups, the boys felt frustration directed at the leader, and tended towards rebellion.

Aggression in autocracy and laissez-faire was directed toward other groups and individuals, as well as the leader. The group experienced inter-personal tension and scapegoating. The boys were dependent on the leader for task-oriented matters and social status. As a result, competition developed between them.

In the laissez-faire and democracy models, the boys sought more attention and approval from each other. However, only the democratic groups showed evidence of a stable co-operative structure.

Morale—in the sense of cohesion (using we not I), working together for group goals and being friendly rather than hostile—was highest in the democratic groups. It was lowest in the autocratic groups. In the latter, submissive groups suffered the lowest morale. In both autocracy and laissez-faire, the boys experienced a great deal of frustration related to their needs for autonomy and sociability.

Frustrations in laissez-faire groups were also high. The boys wanted to accomplish things, but lacking a structure for cooperation, they were all talk and no action.

The amount of productive work varied significantly between the autocratic, democratic, and laissez-faire conditions. When the leaders arrived late in the authoritarian groups, for instance, the boys made no initiative to start new work or continue work already under way. In the democratic condition, the groups were already productive. In laissez-faire the groups were active but not productive.

When the leader left the room in the groups showing a submissive reaction, the percentage of time spent in serious work dropped from 74% to 29%. In the groups showing an aggressive reaction, the drop was from 52% to 16%. The motivation to work was leader-induced, not intrinsic to the boys. In contrast, the democratic group remained stable, with a negligible drop from 50% to 46%.

The democratic groups had by far the highest quality of work and made far more suggestions about how work could be done. They had internalized the group goals. Pride in work also differed significantly. The democratic groups presented their work or took it home, whereas in one authoritarian group, the boys actually tried to destroy what they had made.

Overall, the democratic form showed its superiority on every measure.

This result has been replicated many times over in just about every form of human endeavour. But how far can this study be related to the workplace? The connection comes through a major discovery made by Australian Professor Fred Emery, who worked with the Norwegian Industrial Democracy Programme from 1962 to 1967.

By 1960 Norway had still not fully recovered from the devastation of World War II and needed revitalization. The Norwegian government decided to engage in a national experiment and asked Emery and Einar Thorsrud to redesign four nationally-significant industrial sites into “sociotechnical,” or participative democratic, systems. The experiments were successful, with increased productivity, lowered costs and higher quality work for the workers across all sites.

During this work, Emery discovered that there were only two Design Principles (known as DP1 and DP2) underlying all forms of organization. These corresponded to autocracy and democracy, respectively. The language was updated, as what were previously known as climates were shown to be structures. Furthermore, laissez-faire was shown to be the absence of a design principle because there are no structural relationships between the people.

According to Emery, every organization, whether it is a family, a government, voluntary group or a workplace, is governed by one of these design principles. In workplaces that legally employ people, the relationships between employees (whether they are board members, management or workers) is either autocratic (DP1) or democratic (DP2). Normally, the design principle is encoded in a collective bargaining agreement, an individual contract, a duty statement, or in job criteria.

Emery called these two design principles “genotypical”, because:

“…like DNA, they determine the most fundamental aspects of organizational shape and characteristics.”

The basic modules of structure that flow from each of these principles is shown below:

DP1 is called ‘redundancy of parts’ because there are more parts (ie people) than are required to perform a task at any given time. In DP1, responsibility for coordination and control is located at least one level above where the work is being done. That is, those above have the right and responsibility to tell those below what to do and how to do it. DP1 yields a supervisory or dominant hierarchy. Individuals have fragmented tasks and goals: one person–one job.

DP2 is called ‘redundancy of functions’ because more skills and functions are built into every person than that person can use at any one given point in time. In DP2, responsibility for coordination and control is located with the group of people performing the whole task. Each self managing group works to a unique set of negotiated and agreed, measurable goals, comprehensively covering every aspect of the work, social and environmental as well as production.

DP1 structures are hierarchies of personal dominance. DP2 structures are non-dominant hierarchies of function, where change is negotiated between peers.

Laissez-faire is defined as the absence of a design principle and, therefore, the absence of structure. It is every person for themself. Laissez-faire today commonly takes the form of an organization where the structure on paper is DP1, but the controls have been loosened to the point that there is widespread confusion about where responsibility for control and coordination are located.

DP1 structures induce competition, whereas DP2 structures induce cooperation.

Over time, DP1 actively deskills and demotivates people, whereas DP2 skills and motivates them.

Problems such as interpersonal conflict or lack of initiative are usually blamed on individuals, but Emery’s work shows that they are systemic — the effect of design principles on behaviour.

Importantly, the Norwegian project showed that successful demonstration or pilot sites are not necessarily copied in the surrounding areas. Success does not breed success. This finding has been replicated many times since.

Emery then went on to develop a new, quick and simple method for shifting organizations to the democratic, DP2 structure. This involved “Participative Design Workshops”, through which those who work in an organization set about redesigning it.

In the next part of this paper we’ll look at what’s involved, and how it has fared.

  1. Merrelyn Emery is currently Adjunct Professor at the Department of Applied Human Sciences, Concordia University, Australia. She has a PhD in Marketing and has written and co-written extensively (particularly with Fred Emery) many books and journal articles in areas such as participative democracy, change processes, open systems theory, sustainable futures, organizational culture and education. []
  2. Discovering “laissez faire”.
    (This explanation is based on Merrelyn Emery’s own words.) . Included here as highly relevant to a critique of production relations under neoliberalism):

    During the experiment an inexperienced leader, Ralph White, became baffled by the anarchy created by two boys who were “real hell raisers.” He let all the boys “do their own thing,” which resulted in some very negative effects. His understanding then was that democracy could mean total individual freedom. His approach with this group allowed the distinction between democracy and laissez-faire to be made. Many people practice laissez-faire thinking that they are being democratic, just because they are not controlling autocratically. Unfortunately, this confusion of democracy and laissez-faire is still with us.

    They became dissatisfied with the chaos, confusion, and uncertainty. Even the boys who tried hardest to use their freedom to get work done found it impossible, as they experienced constant interference from other boys… The democratic leaders stimulated eight times as much independence as the authoritarian leaders and twice as much as the laissez-faire leaders (Lippitt & White, 1947). Democracy, not laissez-faire, resulted in the greatest individual differences. Although fewer expressions of individuality in autocracy should surprise no one, many will be surprised by the fact that there was less individuality in laissez-faire (Lippitt & White, 1947). Contrary to what many believe, freedom to do whatever one pleases actually results in a reduced opportunity to express individuality. Autonomy without a balancing degree of belongingness with peers restricts and inhibits personal growth (M. Emery, 1999). []

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