Anti-Discrimination Board of NSW

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Using “deep democracy” to prevent bullying - ACHRA 2015​

Published: 15 Nov 2015

How you can use the technique of “deep democracy” to reduce the likelihood of bullying in your organisation.

image of a man talking with a group
A presentation at the recent Australasian Council of Human Rights Agencies conference raised the idea of reducing workplace bullying using the concept of “deep democracy”.

A number of speakers at the conference raised the need to change organisational culture as well as providing complaint handling and training for individuals. If bullying has occurred, harm has been done, and only cultural change will reduce that.  A key ingredient in achieving this seems to be communication. ​

Julie Whitmore from the ACT Human Rights Commission talked about the work of Mary Parker Follett, the pioneering social worker, management consultant and organisational change expert who recognised that conflict is inevitable. You can’t avoid it but you can use it. If people with opposing views are brought together and allowed to express their views you can achieve an “integration of interests”. ​​​

Theory of deep democracy

Taking this idea further, Julie also spoke about “deep democracy”, a model developed by Myrna Louis to help people dealing with the end of apartheid in South Africa. The theory is that when decisions are made by majority rule, you can have a significant minority who disagree. Unless they are given a voice, their feelings can go underground and result in resistance or tension. 

Julie drew a “resistance line” showing how this covert resistance can start with jokes, then sarcastic jokes before people start making excuses for not implementing a decision. They begin to gossip, communication between different groups breaks down and this becomes disruptive. People start working more slowly, or calling strikes before there is a complete breakdown in relations and overt war or withdrawal. Any organisation where there is resistance will be inefficient and ineffective.

The theory of deep democracy views conflict as a healthy component of diversity, which is not in itself a problem. The problem is the fear of dealing with conflict, and therefore the tendency NOT to deal with it. 

People must be encouraged to recognise resistance and to speak up as soon as they do. If people are given the opportunity to express their views, even if they are not the views of the majority, this may avert resistance and increase wisdom. Everyone feels respected and engaged, and the power of bullying may diminish and the workplace may be more productive.  

How to apply theory​

To do this requires active leadership on the part of managers. According to Julie, if you allow people to say what they need to say, you might learn something, and you will find out what it will take to bring them along. 

It’s all about recognising the value of diversity. If you recognise conflict and resistance you can deal with it when it arises and it can be transformed into something positive. If you are not comfortable letting people have their say, you have the potential to become a bully. All you have to do is say, “This is what I think, what do you think?”

​​Back to December 2015 - Equal Times Newsletter

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