10 Suggestions for a More Democratic Workplace

E Pluribus Kinko’s: A Story of Business, Democracy, and Freaky Smart People, discusses the unusual company culture that helped Kinko’s grow and profit for thirty years, and how the loss of that culture contributed to the company’s decline and eventual disappearance.

Here is a summary of the ideas that made that democratic culture work.

1. State Your Values Clearly

The Kinko’s Philosophy hung in every store and was constantly discussed and debated throughout the organization. It empowered new and far-flung coworkers to make good decisions on their own and ensured every coworker a voice in the company. The Philosophy also attracted and encouraged people aligned to the values it described.

2. Respect Freaks and Curmudgeons

The Philosophy and Commitments to Communication came to life through constant testing; public debates demonstrated our commitment to open communication and our love of diverse ideas. Diversity of ideas is just as valuable as any other kind of workplace diversity.

3. Don’t Bogart Ownership (Apologies to Scott Bogart, a longtime Kinko’s coworker)

Kinko’s unique partnership structure spread opportunity, but also the burden of responsibility. Founder Paul Orfalea said he’d be happier with a smaller piece of a much bigger pie, and the pie grew because profit sharing and the democratic culture spread a feeling of ownership—and responsibility—to people who held no equity.

4. Centralize Only What MUST be Centralized

Liberty breeds innovation, so try to give remote locations as much liberty as possible. According to Orfalea, “As the founder and senior partner, I could have dictated anything, but once you start doing that, you demoralize your workforce and end up having to dictate everything. You need people to make good decisions for themselves. You might be able to require white paint and blue counters, but can you dictate a passion for customer service? Your company culture will be determined, to a great extent, by the level of personal trust between you and your coworkers.”

5. Demand Participation

Everyone hates meetings and newsletters, because most meetings and newsletters suck. But our conclaves, Picnics, partner meetings, sales meetings, committees, and other gatherings were more like reunions that created new opportunities for distant relatives to get reacquainted and learn new things from one another. And our newsletter was more like an enthusiast magazine, with an invigorating blend of candor, gossip, useful information, and amusements.

6. Gather the Tribe

As much a family reunion as a business meeting, the annual Kinko’s Picnic built a feeling of unity without demanding conformity. The company thrived on the free flow of ideas, and mass gatherings allowed more people to learn from each other. Such gatherings also served to continuously reinforce cultural touchstones, such as the Philosophy and Commitments to Communication. Plus, we got to hear company president Dan Frederickson and his band rock out.

7. Encourage Experimentation by Practicing Forgiveness

Liberty at the partnership level allowed us to try lots of new services and products. The newsletters I’ve seen from 1983-1986 are full of “try this!” articles, as well as coworkers asking, “How do you handle this?” Some companies need 1,000 cookie cutter stores—every Williams Sonoma store looks and acts exactly the same. Kinko’s was based on providing widespread, affordable access to new technologies otherwise too expensive for individuals, so we needed to stay in tune customer-by-customer and feel free to try new things. But this only worked because we also shared failures without fear of recrimination.

8. Stir the Pot

Kinko’s was blessed with a world-class pot-stirrer in Paul Orfalea. He fought complacency but also kept people focused on the Philosophy—and profits! To make the most of a democratic workplace, leadership must keep the environment roiling to promote individual engagement. People arguing passionately achieve more than people sleepwalking.

9. Play

Don’t take yourself too seriously. Once I had seen Kinko’s Graphics Corporation President Mark Madden wearing a plastic bozo head on the dance floor in an Indianapolis bar, I knew we could talk about anything. Yeah, coworkers played hard, and coworkers fraternized and formed friendships, but guess what? People will do a lot for their friends.

10. Pursue Profits Unashamedly

Building mutual prosperity into the Philosophy was a brilliant move. Paul was never shy about making money and he always bravely said that happy fingers ring happy cash registers; that Kinko’s treated coworkers well because it was good business. Honesty creates respect (not in dogmatic anti-capitalists, but hey, you can’t please everybody) and defines the goals to which we direct our liberty.

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