On March 6, 2007, a Washington D.C.-based organization called WorldBlu published its first annual “WorldBlu List of the Most Democratic Workplaces.” The list of honorees included thirty-four companies, from California to Wisconsin to the Netherlands to Russia. (Yes, Russia.) Its proud honorees include everything from tea, bread and beer companies (Honest Tea, Great Harvest Bread Company and New Belgium Brewing Company) to a chamber orchestra (the Orpheus), a telecom (BetterWorld Telecom) and a manufacturer of jet airplane engines (GE Aviation). Yes, a jet airplane engine plant: one of the world’s most democratic workplaces.

Intrigued? We were. We had to find out more.

The culmination of ten years of development and dedication, the award and its underlying concept are the brainchild of WorldBlu founder Traci Fenton. Traci is an energetic, perpetually inspired and inspiring entrepreneur who started with a simple idea—“What would democracy look like as applied to business?”—and has carved from it a global movement. — J.D.M.

Where did WorldBlu and the idea of this list come from?

It started in my senior year in college, when I served as executive director of our student affairs conference. After months of brainstorming, the student team suggested that we put on a conference on democracy.

I was absolutely repulsed by this idea. A conference on democracy?! To me, democracy meant politics and government—boring, dry and stuffy. I wanted to do something cutting edge, and to me, democracy was not cutting edge.

We went back to the drawing board, but over the next few months, the idea grew on me. I began to see that the idea of democracy really aligned with my values and my sense of purpose in life.

And you knew what that was?

I did; for whatever reason, I was blessed with an understanding, very early on, that my purpose in life was to help people realize their full potential. And you can’t do that in a fear-based environment; you can only do that in a freedom-centered environment. I started to see that democracy is fundamentally about creating an environment in which people can be free to excel and express their full selves.

I went back to the group and said, “Okay, let’s do this conference on democracy—but let’s look at it in a much bigger way than just politics and government. Let’s look at how democracy relates to business, to education, to urban planning, to the environment.”

That conference began my love affair with democracy.

Literally the day after the conference was over, I left the country as part of a group traveling to Indonesia to study Indonesian culture and language. Each of us had our own individual area of study as well; I went to study what democracy was like in another country.

While I was in Indonesia I witnessed some incredible things. This was in 1997, at the height of President Suharto’s repressive government; I was there in May of 1997 when he was overthrown.

That must have been an eye-opener!

I was twenty-one, I was from Iowa and I’d never been out of the country before. And now I was seeing first-hand what it was like not to be able to live in freedom. It hit me at a deep level. It galvanized my sense that people have a right to be free, not just politically but in the deepest sense of what freedom and human dignity mean.

When I came back from Indonesia, I graduated from college and went to work for a division of a Fortune 500 company in Iowa. My first day on the job, I went in feeling so excited, so proud of my new job, so ready to make a contribution—and by the end of the day, I left feeling completely squashed.

It was clear what the rules of this game were: “You have no voice here, no input, no say. Just shut up and do what we tell you to do.”

Welcome to life as an employee.

It hit me really hard, John. I resigned from that job four months later. I just couldn’t be treated like that. When I told my boss I was resigning, he said, “I knew you had too much self-respect to let yourself be treated the way we treat people around here.”

That job was a revelation—and that’s when I went to work on WorldBlu.

Back when I was working on that conference in college, I’d incorporated WorldBlu as a nonprofit think tank for the purpose of exploring the idea of democracy in business. I had no idea what I was doing; I didn’t even know if such a concept existed. Now I went to work on it in earnest, seeking ways to help name and define a new model for how to do business as a democratic organization.

I worked on the idea part-time for a few years while I completed a Masters degree and filled in my schedule working for a national non-profit organization. After finishing my degree I worked for NASDAQ for a few years, and then knew it was time to go full-time on WorldBlu.

We held a CEO roundtable in the fall of 2003. We invited CEOs of democratic companies to come in and get to know one another, and this was also an opportunity for us to hear a range of others’ perspectives on how this idea works. That same fall, I established WorldBlu as a for-profit organization—we call it a “business design studio.”

Two years later, in the fall of 2005, we presented a major conference here in Washington on organizational democracy. People came from all over the world, including China and Iraq, to learn about how to bring democracy into the workplace.

So these ideas have pretty quickly found an audience.

It has really taken off in a big way, John. In just this past year, I’ve spoken in Europe, Latin America, the Caribbean and North America, addressing people from over 100 different countries and at institutions ranging from Harvard to Yahoo! to Fox Interactive Media—and even at my own alma mater!

Traci, tell us about the “Most Democratic Workplace” award.

Creating the WorldBlu List has been the fulfillment of a dream I’ve held for ten years, ever since that conference in college. Publishing and publicizing the list, along with the definitions that describe it, serves to aggregate these companies together—it puts a name to something nobody had really identified before. People see it and say, “Oh my gosh, this is more than a singular event, this is a movement.”

Is it your vision for this list to become a universally acknowledged standard, like the Good Housekeeping seal or ISO standards?

Exactly. We want this to be the worldwide standard for what it means to be a democratic workplace.

I was intrigued to notice GE Aviation on that list.

Isn’t that fascinating? GE Aviation makes jet engines that power most commercial airplanes. They make the engines for Air Force One. Now, you’d certainly think that would be a classic command-and-control environment—but it’s not. I’ve visited their plant and seen them close up, and it’s a genuinely democratic environment, a completely flat organization.

I have to confess, my initial reaction was, “Wait a second! They run this place as a democracy?! Um, are those engines safe?”

I love your honesty with that! And I can understand why you would react that way; many people do. It’s because we have a false understanding of what control is and of what produces great results. But people have an amazing amount of collective wisdom—I’m sure you got that sense when you talked with Ori [Brafman] and Rod [Beckstrom, authors of The Starfish and the Spider], and you get the same sense from [James Surowiecki’s] The Wisdom of Crowds. But the traditional command-and-control model doesn’t allow us to tap into that collective wisdom.

At GE Durham, they realized that they could gain access to their people’s smarts by creating a democratic structure. With these brilliant people working in their plant, they saw that it would be downright arrogant and irresponsible to have just a few people at the top telling everyone else what to do. In fact, doing it that way would actually be less safe than tapping the collective wisdom and knowledge of the great people they had.

When you’re building jet engines, there’s absolutely no room for error—so they chose a purely democratic model to get it done right.

On your web site, you say that “organizational democracy moves you from the red to the black.” This again seems oddly like a surprise. Do we have an underlying assumption that while democracy may be the “right” way to do things, it’s not necessarily the most efficient model when you really need to get something done?

Yes, people think it’s going to be slower or more costly. But I think we have that bias only because we haven’t refined and developed our understanding of how to make this model work. I’m hoping that’s a contribution WorldBlu can make.

At GE Aviation’s Durham plant, they have 260 employees and one plant manager—that’s it. They’ve created a system that empowers all their people—and also eliminates the need for a whole intermediate management layer, which represents a huge economic savings. What’s more, because you’re tapping the collective wisdom of all your people, the group is making smarter decisions. Because they have a voice, they care more, so they’re more efficient and make fewer mistakes. Absenteeism goes down and there’s lower turnover, because they feel valued.

All these factors contribute to the bottom line. This ought to be a no-brainer. But people don’t get it at first, because we’re so steeped in the idea of command and control.

And you’re saying, that model is obsolete?

During the Industrial Age, command and control served its purpose. But the Internet and the pervasive spread of information has given birth to a different time, a Democratic Age, where people are able to influence, participate and have a voice in a way that they never have before.

Today, anyone can create a blog and have a voice. And then they’re supposed to go to work every day and be told to shut up and do what they’re told? It’s not going to work any more. We all want to engage now. You can’t expect to successfully apply an Industrial Age business model in a Democratic Age.

The logical next question is, okay, then what kind of model do you use in a Democratic Age?

Enter WorldBlu.

And the WorldBlu List of Most Democratic Workplaces. The companies that made the WorldBlu List represent the new model. And they’re outperforming their competitors. They’re at the top of their game, every single one of them.

Traci, your web site identifies ten core principles that characterize a democratic workplace [see sidebar]. How did you develop these principles?

Over the last ten years I’ve traveled extensively, researching democratic companies in Africa, Latin America, Europe and North America; I’ve talked with dozens of practitioners of democratic and organizational development ideas. What emerged from all this research is that democracy is not a singular event or activity, it is a system.

These ten principles are what creates the democratic system that truly democratic organizations exhibit. If even one of these principles is missing, you don’t really have a democratic system.

In that list, you include this mild claim: “They understand the meaning of life.” That’s pretty wild! Do you see this as something that has emerged only recently as a priority in business?

In Patricia Aburdene’s new book Megatrends 2010 [see our review, Nov/Dec 2006—Ed.], she says the number one megatrend of our time is meaning—our search for meaning and spirituality.

The old-school mindset was, “A job’s a job, it’s a paycheck.” That’s just not acceptable anymore. People are saying, “No! I’m here for a purpose, and I want my work to be an expression of purpose.” We want our work to be an expression of meaning for us. And that’s what I’m seeing with these democratic organizations: they have a sense of purpose.

Typically organizations care about mission, which is what you do, and that’s important. But purpose is what we are, why we exist—and that’s even more important. At WorldBlu, we exist to elevate the human spirit through organizational democracy and freedom-centered leadership. That’s our purpose.

Or, look at Honest Tea: are they really in the business of just making tea? No—they want to bless the world. They want to be able to employ farmers in Argentina by buying their products for their tea and raising their standard of living. There’s a clear sense of purpose.

In describing the principle of “Dialogue and Listening,” you say, “Instead of the monologue or dysfunctional silence that characterizes most companies, democratic companies are committed to ongoing conversations and collaborations.” I imagine that that “dysfunctional silence” typically causes people to ultimately quit, get sick or get fired.

That’s absolutely right. It’s so sad. The Harvard Business Review recently published an article with the title, “Is silence killing your company?”

Every year, the Gallup organization releases an “employee engagement index,” that measures how engaged are people at work all around the world. The latest numbers show that in the U.S. 73 percent of the U.S. workforce is disengaged at work. In other words, they’ve reduced themselves to being seat-warmers, doing the minimal amount needed to keep their jobs.

Three-quarters of our work force is disconnected! Why? I think one of the biggest reasons is that people have checked out of the command-and-control system.

What does a leader in a democratic organization look like?

It takes a different kind of mindset. I think the democratic CEO’s perennial question is, “What can I do to help create an environment that brings out the leadership capacities in others?” It’s all about bringing out the potential in others.

I asked the CEO of a democratic company, “What does it take to lead a company democratically? What kind of person do you have to be?” And he said, “You can’t have anything to prove.”

If you have this ego need to prove yourself, you’re not going to be listening to others, and you won’t be humble or open enough to say, “Okay, maybe my idea isn’t the greatest, but what do you think?” and bringing other people in.

People say, “Oh, I see, you’re just talking about teamwork and collaboration…,” or, “You mean, having people participate in the decision-making process.” Those things are important, but they’re only pieces of the whole picture. You can still have a command-and-control environment where the leader happens to invite some employee participation.

If there’s one thing I’d emphasize, it’s these ten core principles. If a company doesn’t score at a high enough level in all ten areas, it’s not going to qualify for the WorldBlu List. It might be a great place to work, and it might be run by great people—but it’s not a democratic workplace.

I’m thinking of all sorts of companies and wondering how they’d stack up, say, for example, Southwest Airlines…

If you know of some great companies that we should contact and encourage to apply for next year’s list, I would love your suggestions. We want to grow the WorldBlu List huge. Our goal is to have 1,000 companies on the list by 2020.

And because that which is measured increases, by the very act of building your list from thirty-four companies to 1,000, one result will be that more and more people will emulate these behaviors.

That’s what we’re hoping. I want to see a day when my children, by the time they’re ready to enter the workforce, say, “Wait—you mean there was a time when companies weren’t democratic?” That’s what I want to see.


The Ten Core Principles of a Sustainable Democratic Workplace

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.

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.

3. Dialogue and 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.

4. Fairness and Dignity

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

5. Accountability

Democratic organizations point fingers, not in a blaming way but in a liberating way! Democratic organizations are crystal clear about who is accountable and responsible for what.

6. Individual and 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.

7. Choice

Democratic organizations thrive on giving employees meaningful choices.

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’s morally and ethically right.

9. Decentralization

Democratic organizations distribute leadership and power across their enterprise.

10. Reflection and Evaluation

Democratic organizations are committed to looking in the mirror and asking, “How can we be better?”—not just quarterly or annually, but daily.