Engineering Deep Democracy: Practitioner Interview with Leslie Westray

How do you change the organizational culture of a rapidly growing mining engineering company?  This was the challenge that Leslie Westray and other managers at his workplace took on when they first learned about deep democracy and the co-resolve process.

The company Leslie works at has grown quickly in recent years,
going from a small firm where everybody knows and talks to each other, to a large company with individuals with vastly different
preferences, backgrounds, and management styles.  Combined with a more autocratic management culture and a feeling of entrenchment amongst staff, there was the potential for conflict and unresolved issues between co-workers.  Senior management saw deep democracy as a way to create a more inclusive leadership culture, and trained managers in the methodology so it would filter down to the whole organization.

While Leslie and his colleagues are relatively new to deep democracy, having finished the training in the last six months, his experience using the methodology as a manager in a growing mining engineering company provides unique insight into the applications of deep democracy.

What changes were seen in the company as you tried to implement deep democracy?

After implementing the deep democracy training, Leslie and other staff have seen the importance of getting all the issues on the table, and have gotten experience discussing these issues openly.  While it took some time to get used to the methodology, more and more people have softened to the ideas of deep democracy.  Many staff have welcomed the more inclusive management style, which provides them the room to voice their opinions.  Leslie also mentioned the importance of reviewing the steps, particularly before a meeting, as they do not necessarily come naturally.

How do you use the methodology as a manager with a perspective, as opposed to a neutral, third-party facilitator?

Leslie emphasized the importance of switching back and forth between neutral facilitator and one’s role as manager in such instances.  It is good to lean in and state your perspective as a manager so that people understand what your view is, but it is important to also lean back and ask for everybody else’s views.  In the role of neutral facilitator, the manager must acknowledge opposing views, and then put the different perspectives up for debate or a vote.  Following the deep democracy process, once the majority decides, the minority is asked for their buy-in.

How do you balance going through the full deep democracy process with getting tasks done quickly, which might be easier with a more autocratic management style?

It is only possible to tackle a few topics at each meeting.  Leslie recommended that at the beginning of the meeting, people should briefly state what topics they would like to talk about, and then vote on one or two items to discuss.  While it is not possible to discuss everything, this ensures that the most pressing issues are addressed.

It is also important as a facilitator to recognize when cycling happens, when people are simply repeating themselves and the meeting is not moving forward.  In these instances, without being rude, stop the cycling and refocus the conversation to keep the meeting moving forward.  In Leslie’s experience, as facilitators become more practiced at recognizing cycling, they can shorten meetings, or move on to more topics.

What is a unique scenario in which you used the techniques of deep democracy?

Leslie had experienced a performance issue with one of his staff, and needed to discuss the matter with the individual.  Before the deep democracy training, Leslie says that he would have thrown all his arrows as the manager, and shown the individual the door.  Instead, he used the deep democracy tools in a one-on-one context, specifically The Argument.  The experience was an eye-opener for both sides, and having both thrown all their arrows, the working relationship has improved.

How else might the deep democracy tools be used in the private sector?

Deep democracy tools are useful in client meetings, and attaining contracts from clients.  As opposed to simply discussing superficial issues, Leslie uses deep democracy to diffuse tension in the room, and also to understand why a client might not want a contract with his company.  By listening to potential client concerns, the company can proactively address any issues, show the potential client that they have their best interests at heart, and broker a successful deal.

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