Workplace democracy: no good reasons not to start

Antoinette Weibel has sparked an interesting discussion on LinkedIn about the feasibility and utility of workplace democracy. In her post, she refers to an article by Roberto Frega and colleagues, in which the pros and cons of this concept are discussed.

The debate on workplace democracy

The article 'Workplace democracy—The recent debate' deals with the complex discussions currently being held on the democratization of workplaces. The authors, Roberto Frega, Lisa Herzog, and Christian Neuhäuser, dissect the various arguments surrounding this concept.

Arguments for workplace democracy

The first part of the article focuses on arguments supporting democracy in the workplace:
  • The state-form analogy and parallels: Here, arguments are examined that draw a comparison between democratic states and companies, suggesting that if democracy is justified for states, it should also apply to businesses.
  • Meaningful work: This section discusses how democratization of the workplace can contribute to the quality of work by giving employees more autonomy and recognition. 
  • Non-domination and relational equality: This argument posits that workplace democracy can promote non-domination and relational equality among employees.

Arguments against workplace democracy

The second part presents the counterarguments:
  • Efficiency: This section discusses arguments that democratic workplaces can be inefficient and place companies at a competitive disadvantage.
  • Feasibility of a transition: This section addresses concerns that a transition to democratic workplaces may not be feasible or spontaneous.
  • Liberalism: This section deals with the criticism that workplace democracy can restrict the freedoms of individuals and businesses.
Frega et al. conclude that there is no clear consensus and advocate for more empirical research and ongoing discussion.

Antoinette Weibel's reaction and plea

Antoinette Weibel argues that, given the current rise of populism, it is more important than ever to protect democratic values and strengthen democracies. Support for this can come from the fact that people learn good citizenship at work, such as communication, understanding different viewpoints, and acting responsibly. She says that the counterarguments of inefficiency and feasibility are not weighty enough not to start with mild forms of workplace democracy.

Regarding the counterargument that workplace democracies might be less free, she says that freedom is only truly valuable within a 'civilized society'. In other words, freedom, according to this reasoning, needs a social context in which it is exercised in a way that serves not only the individual but also the collective good. Freedom without a structure of civil norms and democratic processes is not truly valuable.

The power of congruence

I agree with the benefits outlined in Frega et al.'s article and with Weibel's reasoning that the potential drawbacks are not a reason not to start implementing workplace democracy. Promoting democratic principles within organizations can contribute to strengthening democratic values and practices in society as a whole. 

By giving people the opportunity to develop their civic virtues at work, such as dialoguing, embracing different perspectives, and acting responsibly, they can apply these principles in other areas of their lives. Congruence between democratic values and practices within organizations and in society as a whole can help protect and strengthen democratic principles.

The counterarguments are not very convincing

The counterarguments are not weighty enough. Moreover, I also find them unconvincing.
  • Not efficient? The validity of the efficiency argument is debatable; the article provides reasoning but cites no empirical evidence for the assumed inefficiency of democratic workplaces. There are credible arguments to be made that these workplaces could function more efficiently. Examples: increased employee engagement that can increase productivity and satisfaction; the wealth of perspectives that improves the quality of decision-making; greater agility in responding to market changes; reduced need for strict management supervision; better risk management; encouragement of innovation; and increased customer satisfaction.
  • Not feasible? That we can choose workplace democracy seems clear to me. The claim that it would not be feasible is unproven and unconvincing. Psychological concepts such as the status quo bias and the mere exposure effect show that we tend to view the existing as good and self-evident. But people have, throughout history, built social systems that are more moral and humane. The human relations movement has shown that we, as humans, have been able to make labor organizations more humane. The fact that something good is challenging should not deter us from attempting it..
  • Not free? For the idea that workplace democracy would encroach on employees' freedom, reasoning is given but no evidence. It is questionable whether democratic workplaces are necessarily less free. The opposite could also be argued: in workplace democracies, the freedom of employees could be greater because they have a say in decisions that directly affect their work, leading to more autonomy and job satisfaction. This contrasts with non-democratic organizations, where decisions are made top-down without employee input.
As an aside, I would like to note that introducing workplace democracy does not mean that organizations have to become leaderless. There remains a need for coordination, mediation, guidance, arbitration, providing direction, etc. But the role of the leader is changing. Just as in a state democracy, the position of the leaders is by definition temporary. The legitimacy of the leader's behavior is continuously tested. If leaders fail in their duties, employees should be able to remove them from their positions.


There is no clear consensus about the usefulness and feasibility of workplace democracy. The potential benefits of strengthening democratic values ​​and practices within organizations seem to me to outweigh the counterarguments. Moreover, the counterarguments are debatable. That is why I think it makes sense for companies to strengthen democratic values ​​and practices within organizations.

Workplace democracy can contribute to a healthier, more productive, and responsible working environment. In such an environment, employees can feel involved in the decisions that affect their work and where their voices are heard and valued.