In 2010, Georg Diez wrote in the newspaper SZ Nr. 275:

»We are on the brink of this new century, the contours of which we can at least discern. A new green hedonism, a new technology euphoria, a crisis demolishing old hierarchies and enabling new realities, thus making room for fresh ideas.«

Now, the media (social as well as official) are full of suggestions on how to use democratic forms and methods in order to handle the crisis of hierarchies. Few pause to ask whether this can be combined with the organizations’ system targets and their embedment into the global financial market. The suggestions for democratisation contain another hope: the hope of many that they will be able to work with more engagement and self-determination.

Discussions of this kind are addressed in organizations from two points of view. Firstly: what do I have to do in order to create a space that enables employees to be engaged as they work? Secondly: how can I create a context within which my employees make their potential available? The answers to both questions lead us to another reality of leadership work. The essential question is: how can my employees be heard and what will enable them to work in a context they consider meaningful? If both of these aims are realized, more employees will feel their effective agency. That is the psychological basis for motivated, confident people.

The current urgency is demonstrated when we address the scenarios drawn of the near and middle-distance future. With regard to perception within organizations, these are described by the acronym VUCA (Jörg Müngersdorff: New Leadership for a New World; Johannes Ries: VUCA).

Jörg Müngersdorff clearly outlined the potentially dramatic nature of the developments in a range of fields, asking the decisive question: Are organizations prepared? A look at the regular polls on employee motivation in larger and large organizations yields a clear answer: no (depending on the study, 70% to 80% are described as unmotivated). Unless, of course, you believe that 30% of employee potential suffice to tackle the challenges ahead.

Is democratisation the answer, however? Even a simple look at the topic »Choosing our leadership« raises fears of never-ending election campaigning. Yet, democratisation has already started to take place long ago. Forms of plebiscites like employee questionnaires, 360° feedback and management dialogues are steps along a path towards a democratically composed organization.

With regard to the next steps, there are two aspects that have to precede the experiment of daring to »choose« leaders, strategic topics, wages, etc. The first step has to be the dissolution of hierarchic borders. We create layers in organizations. As a result, debates are limited to single levels and often keep repeating in the same patterns. At this moment, we are witnesses to a protest against these limits arising among the lower layers. This protest is not primarily about status issues or what would generally be subsumed as »envy«; it is about a sense that leadership is too far removed from reality, that it is not in touch. This is true internally as well as with regard to market developments. Delineations of this kind can be opened up swiftly and without disturbing the structure. It could be considered a realization of the popular fireside chat.

Participation in leadership conferences, management meetings, strategy circles and other meetings will be changed: half of the participants shall be delegated by employees. It is important that the delegates are sent by local or functional units that have fewer than a hundred employees. This strategy will always touch only selected groups that change over the course of time. It will nevertheless introduce a lasting change to the conversations, debates and topics at traditional meetings. The hierarchic borders will become more fluid. Bottom-up knowledge can enter opinion-forming processes and enable participation (the condition for engagement and motivation). These are soft methods of democratisation, which at the same time bring about a lasting improvement of an organization leadership’s vertical communication: Having been there will change the way we speak about an event.

The second aspects concerns one of the bases of democratic orientation: the establishment of an internal critical media landscape. Organizations will have to abandon their guided internal press led, as it is, by image folders. One condition for functioning participation is a critical counterpublic, which is at the same time an important source of information on prevalent thoughts, perceptions and feelings for those in charge. The introduction of internal social platforms are an entrance gate that make it possible to practice and try out how to deal with a critical counterpublic.

It is apparent that the traditional procedure where a manager defines the hierarchy has lost some of its full power of legitimation. It has been joined by a second process of decision-making: once I have been placed, my employees will have to actively choose me. This fact obliges us to enter dialogue. An organization that has managed to introduce vertical participation models and that is truly engaged in an exchange with their employees will find it much easier to gain social competence. In such organizations, people are working together on a goal. They know the significance of what they are doing and can experience the value of their contribution.

A final reminder: Why do we need all of that? Because we will need the engagement of more than 20 to 30 per cent of our employees if we want to be able to face the challenges ahead.

Rüdiger Müngersdorff