When John Frith and I met with Worldblu CEO Traci Fenton last week, we talked about the different ways companies are starting their transformation into a democratic workplaces. Whilst there are ten principles for a democratic workplace, each company has a slightly different interpretation of what democracy means to them. I completely understand that as the democratic systems in nation states around the world differ depending on cultural, history and heritage.
But then, I remembered the fundamental differentiation Colin Woodward draws in his exceptional book ‘American Nations – a history of the eleven rival regional cultures of North America’ that still defines the political and cultural debate in the USA to this day:
“One might ask how such a tyrannical society could have produced some of the greatest champions of republicanism, such as Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and James Madison. The answer is that Tidewater’s gentry embraced classical republicanism, meaning a republic modelled after those of ancient Greece and Rome. They emulated the learned, slave-holding elite of ancient Athens, basing their enlightened political philosophy around the ancient Latin concept of liberates, or liberty. This was a fundamentally different notion from the Germanic concept of Freiheit, or freedom…” (p.54).
Woodward then continues to explain the distinction, first the concept of freedom:
“For the Norse, Anglo-Saxon, Dutch and other Germanic tribes of northern Europe, “freedom” was a birthright of free peoples, which they considered themselves to be. Individuals might have differences in status and wealth, but all were literally “born free.” All were equal before the law and all had come into the world possessing “rights” that had to be mutually respected on threat of banishment.”
And then the concept of liberty:
“The Greek and Roman political philosophy embraced by Tidewater gentry assumed the opposite: most humans were born into bondage. Liberty was something that was granted and was thus a privilege, not a right. Some people were permitted many liberties, others had very few, and many had none at all. The Roman republic was one in which only a handful of people had the full privileges of speech (senators, magistrates), a minority had the right to vote on what their superiors had decided (citizens), and most people had no say at all (slaves). Liberties were valuable because most people did not have them and were thought meaningless without the presence of a hierarchy. “
It is a fascinating distinction in itself and explains a lot of the rhetoric and the Kulturkampf in the current US election. Let’s apply this to the democratic workplace for a moment:
Most workplaces follow the Greek and Roman model . It is the do as I say, don’t do as I do mentality. Citizens might not be able to vote, but they can influence. But the lowest workers in the company hierarchy are the ones with the least privilege, as the privileges are given by the few at the top and are closely guarded by every single one having a privilege over somebody else. It’s quite the control system through self-interest, envy and to a certain level even fear, the fear of losing one’s privilege or being pushed further away from gaining a privilege the individual deems they deserve.
More advanced workplaces might actually have a certain type of voting, as for example Brainpark, one of the WorldBlu companies, where employee citizens can vote for their CEO.
I believe a company and brand is defined by the people within. So part of the company culture, set up and democracy style and level are therefore defined by the individuals. And what strikes me most when thinking about it, is the fact that most individuals actually don’t act and therefore don’t perceive themselves as individuals under the concept of freedom but rather as individuals under the concept of liberty. In other words, they don’t see themselves as equal to others regardless of title or standing, they see themselves as needing to earn privilege. It is also interesting that this seems to differ from cultural background to cultural background and I have experienced it as more prevalent in the British mindset, which would make sense as the “Tidewater gentry” where decedents of the British rural nobility.
So a first and potentially most important step in creating a democratic workplace is the change of perception by the individual from the concept of libertas to the concept of Freiheit. Whilst companies can help individual employees to build the framework for it, the employee therefore participates as a citizen and uses his/her rights and responsibilities in accordance of the new framework. Obviously it is easier said than done, but surely it would be a highly beneficial for everybody involved. I actually also believe that this would be embraced by most company founders and leaders as it leads to a more mature, open and fluid company culture. It might get rejected by middle management as privilege could be lost, but the most interesting part for me is: are employees/staff actually prepared to a make this change and choose freedom and choice.