What is democratic leadership?

What is democratic leadership?

Democratic leadership. Sounds good, right?

We all like to think of our workplaces as - to some extent - democracies, where decision-making and recognition is shared.

Sure, there’s a hierarchy and processes to follow. But making people feel involved and professionally respected is a huge motivator. And so, a democratic approach is required.

What is democratic leadership?

But the democratic leadership style is more than ‘letting your team have their say’. It’s a committed effort to involve them in most or all of the decisions that need to be made.

And for that to work, you need to cultivate the right kind of culture. It doesn’t come easy, but it can really pay off.

Here are some of the things you’ll want to work on to become a truly democratic leader.

Effective, inclusive communication

If you want to include everyone in decision making, they’ll need to know how the outcomes they choose will affect each and every other person.

You don't want to end up having ten of your team push for a change that will double the workload of two others just because the ten don’t understand their working processes.

And you’ll want to use lots of democratic techniques to ensure that the loudest voices don’t dominate. We’ve got some tactics to help with all this!

Psychological Safety

Another key component of inclusive conversation is psychological safety; the idea that no one is punished for making a mistake. There are lots of ways to encourage psychological safety in your team, starting with… well, not punishing people for making mistakes!

It sounds simple, but take a close look at how you handle mistakes. Even if your response isn’t intended as a punishment, it can still be ‘punishing’ to the person on the receiving end if it creates guilt, shame, a feeling of inadequacy… you get the picture.

Swot up on psychological safety to build a solid foundation, and you’ll see that it supports great communication, creativity and more.


Decision making is a big responsibility. If you want everyone to do it, you want them to do it well - and for that, there needs to be accountability.

Again, this isn’t about punishing people for making the wrong decision. It’s about empowering people to make the best decisions they can with the information and experience available to them. Without any accountability at all, you’ll find that people make self-serving or lazy decisions, so it’s crucial to get this in place.

Find out why employee accountability is crucial for a non-toxic working environment and check out the Accountability Dial tactic to see how to approach difficult conversations about accountability.

When is democratic leadership effective?

If it’s done right and you’ve got all the elements above in place, democratic leadership can work for any organisation! It’s very motivating and creates a sense of autonomy, mastery and respect that really pays dividends in terms of employee motivation.

There are some situations where it might be less effective, although we’d still recommend using the base principles as far as possible!

But take, for example, a huge marketing agency. Very fast paced, lots of creative minds all working on different clients and projects. Communication can still be fantastic, but you might lack the granularity required for everyone to be included in every decision. You can get around this by consulting, for example, all of the managers. But that means the people underneath them are not a direct part of the process, so it falls just outside of the democratic leadership framework.

Another thing that might create difficulty in including everyone in the decision-making process is if the decisions are often on highly specialist topics, and not all of the team have the knowledge required. Or perhaps in some environments with strict regulatory pressure. However, in these cases you could still get an idea of the preferred direction, or you could present only the workable solutions to people to vote on.

There’s almost always going to be a democratic approach that you can take! It may just require a little creative thinking.

Pros and cons of democratic leadership

Pros: it’s empowering and avoids your own biases affecting decisions. Encourages collaboration and accountability. Supports people to naturally learn more about their colleagues’ roles and the various dependencies that exist in your organisation.

Cons: it can be long-winded to implement shared decision-making. Without the right culture, you may end up with some people not contributing, or over contributing, or even not being honest when contributing for fear of reprisals.

The cons really are only risks if this approach is not carefully planned and implemented, rather than shortcomings of the framework itself. So don’t try to change things too quickly; use some of those tactics above to nurture the culture that will make it a success.

Is democratic leadership right for me?

In many cases, yes!

If you run a small, agile team that already communicates frequently, this approach could really enhance your working relationships and help bring together everything you already do into a neat framework.

Even if your environment means you can’t implement this approach to the letter, you can still encourage effective conversation, psychological safety and accountability. In fact, you should!

How does democratic leadership compare with other leadership styles?

Take a look at How to lead: 11 leadership styles and frameworks to see how democratic leadership compares to 10 other approaches.

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