The Challenge of Cooperative Workplaces with Democratic Principles

Submitted by Jon Lebkowsky on .
Hands United

“Teamwork is the ability to work together toward a common vision.
The ability to direct individual accomplishments toward organizational objectives.
It is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results.”
~ Andrew Carnegie

Cooperative workplaces are among this country’s best-kept business secrets. This approach to a workplace goes beyond the widely accepted corporate model of exploitation and elimination. Instead, cooperatives create a business entity that is owned and controlled by the people who work in it.

Polycot has been very successful in operating as a cooperative workplace and using democratic principles. We're a small business that has slowly grown the team over time. The challenge of scaling the business is one we are taking on. We want to help other cooperatives meet the challenges of democratic governance.

Cooperative Workplace Values

Doug Addison, one of the owner managers of Polycot Associates, wrote a post about Co-ops as a Practice of Civil Participation a couple years ago. In his article, he suggested that "cooperative values and principles are more closely aligned with American ideals than the dominant economic system we live in today."

He went on to say, "Cooperatives have the potential to change the way our economy is structured by focusing on more than return on investment. They democratize our wealth and encourage participation to achieve a more equitable society."

This aspect of co-ops seems even more critical today. In the United States, we are taught from birth that we live in a democratic society. However, the common work experience is decidedly not democratic. Companies are organized as top-down hierarchical organizations -  just like oligarchies, rather than workplaces leveraging democratic principles.

Cooperative Workplace Leadership

Democratic Leadership

There's a reason for the occurrence of top-down hierarchies in the workplace. Democracy is difficult. Participation can take a hit on efficiency and effective decision-making from the leadership. Democratic governance does not inherently scale well. There's a perceived need for executive leadership creating a barrier of "the buck stops here."

I would argue that we haven't tried hard enough to create and sustain cooperative workplaces or integrated democratic principles - especially with leadership. While governance can be complex and fair profit distribution means that no single person is liable to have a fat paycheck, a cooperative work culture is powerful in other ways. Democracy in the workplace is consistent with our country’s “democratic values.”

For cooperative workplaces to be successful it requires defined leadership roles. Using the democratic principles, effective leaders in the workplace can manage consensus to drive effective decisions. Unlike traditional corporations, leadership is a role that can be passed around in a co-op.

The Power of a Cooperative Workplace

When you do business with those in a cooperative workplace, there are some clear differences. They use sustainable business practices, and the individual workers tend to be more deeply rooted to their community. Each individual can make a contribution to the business’ success through their skills, passion and expertise. No singular person needs to be the executive or sole leader, because individual workers can lead where their contributions are most useful.

Polycot Associates will continue to report our progress with occasional posts about the evolution of co-operation at work. If you have experiences with a cooperative workplace, please share them in the comments below.