Workplace Democratisation

A further example of how the framework for co-operative higher education might be expanded to focus on leadership is through the work of Bernstein (1979/2012). His research on the internal dynamics of workplace democratisation includes a focus on participation and leadership and is based on a number of cases studies of private firms that operate with varying levels of democracy in their governance and management. Across the range of his case studies, he identified three “dimensions of participation” (2012, 47):

  1. The degree of control employees enjoy over a single decision
  2. The issues over which that control is exercised, and
  3. The organisational level at which is is exercised.

Focusing on control, an organisation with minimal democracy in the workplace will operate on the basis of ‘consultation’, through techniques such as an ‘impersonal suggestion box scheme’ or workers given ‘prior notice’ of management’s decisions so that they can voice their views and perhaps stimulate reconsideration. In contrast, an organisation with greater or even full workplace democracy will feature a workers’ council that is superior to the management body, joint power or partnership with managers, and elected management roles and the power for employees to remove people from positions of management. A basic threshold of democratic participation is that workers are able to ‘initiate criticisms and suggestions’ and discuss them face-to-face with managers. Bernstein calls this ‘co-operation or co-influence’.

The range of issues that employees may have democratic control over start from their physical working conditions and personal safety, through to setting salaries, promoting executives, and (in the context of a private firm) division of the profits. Bernstein groups the issues into control over the worker’s own work, control over the organisation’s means, and control over the organisation’s goals.

Finally, the domain or level of participation refers to not only the level at which employees might have representation (e.g. on the Board of Governors), but also the extent to which they can exercise real power at that level. Employee representation at the upper levels of an organisation is more effective (i.e. they wield more democratic power), when all other levels of the organisation are also democratised (i.e. ‘gaps’ are ‘filled in’ with methods of direct and representative democracy), so that the upper level is brought into more contact with the real issues and concerns of workers in the organisation. Achieving democracy at all levels of the organisation means that employees are able to “exert influence at the very points where they have most expertise.” (2012, 54)

The qualities of leadership in democratic organisations are, according to Bernstein, based on a conscious recognition of the power that the person in a position of influence holds and how they choose to use that power, based on a set of values, personal goals and beliefs. The traits that Bernstein identifies (2012, 98) as fostering or facilitating democratisation are:

  • A policy of educating the managed i.e. open access to information (as opposed to secrecy)
  • Confidence in others – hence: willingness to listen and to delegate responsibility (rather than an attitude of mistrust and intense supervision)
  • Governing by merit, explanation, and consent of governed (rather than governing from a formal position of power)
  • Awareness of one’s own fallibility; admits errors to managed (rather than the belief that the leader must set an example to others by appearing infallible and hiding their mistakes)
  • Reciprocity (rather than paternalism); and
  • Egalitarian values (as opposed to a desire to maintain exclusive prerogatives).

Bernstein notes that well-intentioned managers might select one or two of these traits of leadership, but find they conflict with traditional values of managerial privilege. What is needed is recognition that effective democracy requires a “systemic” approach and that this involves a change in the “whole consciousness” of leaders in positions of power.

Likewise, the framework for co-operative higher education should be understood as an open, practical and coherent framework for democratising the governance and management of higher education in a systemic way.

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