Change the World by Changing the Workplace

Ironically, if you want to hit people where they live, you need to hit them where they work. For better or worse, work dominates much of our time and identity. I believe the first step to a more democratic world is a more democratic workplace.

While writing E Pluribus Kinko’s: A Story of Business, Democracy, and Freaky Smart People, I found Traci Fenton’s website. Her work reassured me that the democratic principles responsible for Kinko’s success were not a fluke. Recently, I met Traci, and instantly recognized her as a kindred spirit – one who believes that the most direct route to improving society is to improve the workplace.

As true believers in the democratic principle of self-governance, Traci and I had a spirited conversation about workplace freedom as the key to greater coworker engagement, creativity and initiative. Traci and her team have spent thirteen years analyzing organizational democracy, and I’d like to bear witness to the power of the “10 Principles of Organizational Democracy” they have identified.

1.  Purpose and Vision: A democratic organization is clear about why it exists (its purpose), and where it is headed and what it hopes to achieve (its vision). These act as its True North, offering guidance and discipline to the organization’s direction.

As I describe in E Pluribus Kinko’s, the company Philosophy served as a touchstone for our purpose and vision. Whenever we faced a tough decision, we could turn to the philosophy for guidance – literally, since it hung in every office and store.

2. Transparency: Say goodbye to the “secret society” mentality. Democratic organizations are transparent and open with employees about the financial health, strategy, and agenda of the organization.

Many insecure managers derive their power from mystery. By giving their coworkers the mushroom treatment (keep them in the dark and feed them S#!%), such managers become a barrier between the organization and its workers’ talents. But people cannot solve problems if they don’t know what’s going on. At Kinko’s, widespread profit sharing worked as an incentive because we shared and discussed P&L details with the coworkers. Coworkers practice frugality when they clearly see how every expense affects their personal income.

3. Dialogue + Listening: Instead of the top-down monologue or dysfunctional silence that characterizes most workplaces, democratic organizations are committed to having conversations that bring out new levels of meaning and connection.

Along with the Philosophy and Partnership Ethos, I highlight Pot-Stirring as a key success factor for Kinko’s. Founder Paul Orfalea loved to stay out in the field talking with coworkers, and his partners and their teams followed his example. One-on-one or in groups, we discussed and debated everything from domestic partner benefits to holiday hours to whether we should open stores in China. We didn’t always agree, and individuals didn’t always get their way, but everyone had a voice in the organization. As a result, people got in the habit of speaking up and offering ideas.

4. Fairness + Dignity: Democratic organizations are committed to fairness and dignity, not treating some people like “somebodies” and other people like “nobodies.”

Many organizations struggle here because the leaders do not fully understand every coworker’s contribution, while coworkers often confuse “fair” with “equal.” The key to fairness and dignity is rigorous hiring and development, based on a clear understanding of how each person adds value to the organization. If you would like to read a great book about leaders who understood fairness and dignity, get The HP Way, by David Packard.

5. Accountability: Democratic organizations point fingers, not in a blaming way but in a liberating way. They are crystal clear about who is accountable to whom and for what.

You cannot learn from mistakes if you cannot admit having made any. And you cannot innovate unless you are willing to make mistakes along the way. Thus, accountability works with a partner: forgiveness. Both depend on unambiguous language. Clear delineation of goals, strategies and tactics helps every coworker understand his or her responsibilities. We must also distinguish error from misbehavior, and remember that what we tolerate, we encourage. To hold people accountable is to aid their own development and to advance the organization’s goals and culture.

6.  Individual + Collective: In democratic organizations, the individual is just as important as the whole, meaning employees are valued for their individual contribution as well as for what they do to help achieve the collective goals of the organization.

One of the great paradoxes of the Kinko’s Philosophy was expressed in the line, “We value creativity, productivity and loyalty, and we encourage independent thinking and teamwork.” Such a commitment requires strong leaders, capable of walking the tightrope between the apparently conflicting ideas of creativity and productivity. There is no formula – just the constant refinement of judgment.

7.  Choice: Democratic organizations thrive on giving employees meaningful choices.

Democracy is self-governance. Kinko’s founder Paul Orfalea explained that as the company’s majority owner, he could have mandated anything. But once you do that, he said, “you demoralize your coworkers and then you have to dictate everything.” Instead, we tried to offer alternatives and let the people decide.

8.  Integrity: Integrity is the name of the game, and democratic companies have a lot of it. They understand that freedom takes discipline and also doing what is morally and ethically right.

Legendary investor and presidential advisor Bernard Baruch said that our only real freedom is the freedom to discipline ourselves. Integrating one’s public and private life requires the discipline to live every moment in accordance with our values. I believe this is the linchpin for improving society by improving the workplace, because the workplace now fulfills a role abandoned by our schools: it teaches citizenship, for better or worse.

9.  Decentralization: Democratic organizations make sure power is appropriately shared and distributed among people throughout the organization.

Study after study confirms what we experienced at Kinko’s in the 1980s and early 1990s: the best customer service happens when decision-making authority rests at the point of action. Ego is the enemy. Trust unleashes the talent of our coworkers.

10. Reflection + Evaluation: Democratic organizations are committed to continuous feedback and development and are willing to learn from the past and apply lessons to improve the future.

Reflection and evaluation require that we value candor. At Kinko’s, we worked very hard to collect feedback from our customers and coworkers on a daily basis. Executives spent 50% or more of our time in stores. We called hundreds of customers every week to interview them about their in-store experience. We collected thousands of comment cards every month, and we read every single one.

Traci Fenton and WorldBlu have done a great job identifying and codifying the principles, traits, and challenges of democratic organizations. My own experience of workplaces – democratic, monarchical, or tyrannical – assure me of the truth of Fenton’s findings. If we believe in self-governance, if we believe in bringing democracy to the world, we must first bring democracy to the workplace. To learn how, visit

This entry was posted in Customer Service, Leadership Competency, Management culture, Workplace Democracy and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Change the World by Changing the Workplace

  1. Hi Dean! I was a Kinko’s Co-worker from 1991-1999. In many ways, Kinko’s was the best employer I’ve ever had. Creativity and the sharing of ideas was greatly encouraged. I think I entered ideas in the Company Picnic Contest every year I was there. The year I was finally a finalist, I had to ask which idea I was a finalist for… LOL. I can remember passing out mini-candy bars or even cash to co-workers who could share one of the 14 Commitments to Communication with me or recite the Kinko’s Philosophy. Our management team spent hours coming up with our store vision statement as we prepared to open the new store (the largest ever at that time). I was so involved and engaged, that when I went to Japan on vacation I made a special train trip to visit the stores in Nagoya. I liked nothing better than visiting other stores around the country and borrowing their ideas to bring back to make our store better, more efficient or innovative.

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