Sociocracy is democratic and self-managing: What are the benefits?

Why are authoritarian workplaces the norm, when they are detrimental?

Have you ever stopped to think about how in a supposedly free and democratic society, most people spend most of their time in authoritarian spaces? Both work and school have strict top-down hierarchies where power is unevenly distributed. Democratic participation in the workplace is the exception rather than the norm – which is suprising given that we value democratic participation in so many other areas of our lives. 

But not only do they fail to reflect our values, authoritarian structures may also be actively dangerous in some situations. How so? 

In studies on healthcare systems, it has long been established that more hierarchical interactions between team members lead to worse patient outcomes (Feiger & Schmmitt, 1979, Nembhard & Edmondson 2006). According to a 2003 report, “counterproductive hierarchical communication patterns that derive from status differences” contribute to many medical errors (Institute of Medicine, 2003). What this tells us is that authoritarian workplaces are actively harmful, contributing to errors that may even lead to patient deaths. Democratic and self-managed workplaces offer an alternative to authoritarian systems. Sociocracy, as both a democratic and self-managing organizational structure, may offer some of the benefits of both.

Defining democratic workplaces and self-management

In this article, I’ll discuss the researched benefits of democratic and self-managed workplaces. Generally speaking, democratic workplaces are places where employees have decision-making power over at least some company policies. Self-managed workplaces are places where employees have a say in how work gets done. Both are attempts to “flatten” organizational structures and to empower employees to have more voice in decisions that affect them.

Researched benefits of democratic workplaces

There are many researched benefits of workplaces with participatory decision-making, including:

Meaningful feedback for organizations

According to Miao (2020), employee voice can be seen as giving employees more chances to give feedback, regardless of organizational structure. Increasing “employee voice” in organizations helps with:

  • Organizational innovation
  • Organizational performance
  • Team performance
  • Employee job engagement
  • Creativity

Job stability during crises

Both cooperatively run businesses, as well as businesses that have employee representation on their board, have been shown to protect workers’ jobs during crises.  (Batillana 2022)

Fostering trust and making work less alienating

Cooperatively run businesses have been found to:

Less authoritarian attitudes

Even participating in a brief participatory exercise can have a profound impact on attitudes. Groups of over 1,900 Chinese factory workers and American university staff were randomly assigned to a 20-minute weekly participatory or control meeting for 6 weeks.

According to Wu (2020), workers in the experimental participatory group were found to be:

  • Less authoritarian,
  • More critical about societal authority and justice,
  • And more willing to participate in political, social, and familial decision-making.

Increased civic engagement

Civic engagement in the workplace has been tied to civic engagement in the broader society.

A study of 14,000 workers surveyed across 27 European countries found that “employees with greater levels of individual autonomy and voice at work are significantly more likely to engage in a broad array of pro-democratic behaviors.” (Budd 2019)

Examples of pro-democratic behavior include:

  • Voting,
  • Signing petitions,
  • Contacting elected officials,
  • And belonging to a political party.

With all of these benefits, it’s surprising that more organizations don’t adopt democratic structures.

People in a meeting - Sociocracy For All

Researched benefits of self-managed workplaces

Self-management is defined as having power over the “how” of work, as opposed to democratic workplaces where workers determine policy as well. A first step towards self-management is empowering teams.

More empowered teams were shown to have:

  • Higher productivity and proactivity than less empowered teams 
  • Higher levels of customer service
  • Greater job satisfaction
  • Greater organizational and team commitment. (Kirkmann & Rosen 2017)

Teams identified as not just “empowered” but also “self-managing” benefit team performance by:

  • Increasing productivity
  • Saving costs
  • Higher employee satisfaction

(Cohen & Ledford, 1994; Cohen et al., 1996)

Taking it once step further, “self-leadership” is defined as influence over not just how to complete tasks, but also what kind of work is done, and explorations into why this work is chosen.

Self-leadership has been shown to have positive effects on:

  • Productivity/ quality of work
  • Team creativity and psychological empowerment
  • Job satisfaction
  • Organizational commitment
  • Career success

Self-leadership also correlated with less absenteeism in the workplace.

(Stewart et al 2011)

What benefits might we expect from sociocracy in the workplace?

If even a 6-week participatory exercise can change attitudes about authority and participatory decision-making, imagine what years of immersion in a participatory workplace could do! 

From this research, we could reasonably expect that implementing sociocracy as both a democratic structure and a self-managing workplace would lead to benefits in at least:

  • Productivity
  • Employee satisfaction
  • Team creativity

In addition, we could expect participating in sociocracy to lead to:

  • Greater democratic engagement outside of work
  • Less authoritarian attitudes
  • Increased values of collectivity
  • Increased values of egalitarianism 
  • Increased autonomy 

Sociocracy for All has received a grant to conduct research to further understand how sociocracy impacts workplaces.
Stay tuned for results in Fall 2023!

Want to take a step towards democratizing your workplace?


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Cohen, S. G., & Ledford, G. E. (1994). The Effectiveness of Self-Managing Teams: A Quasi-Experiment. Human Relations, 47(1), 13–43. 

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