Colombia, Brexit and the difficult dynamics of (workplace) democracy

By Tina Irgang

On October 2, a referendum in Colombia narrowly defeated a peace deal designed to bring an end to a five-decade civil war. The shock and scrambling following the decision is reminiscent of the Brexit vote earlier this year. What are the implications for participatory democracy, in the workplace and beyond?

News reports indicate that the Colombian peace deal, negotiated between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forced of Colombia (FARC), was rejected for being too lenient on the Marxist guerillas. “‘No’ voters … want assurances the rebels will hand in cash from drugs, spend time in jail, and earn their political future at the ballot box rather than get guaranteed, unelected seats in Congress,” as Reuters reports. So the future of peace in Colombia may hinge on whether FARC is willing to accept harsher terms than it had previously agreed to.

Like UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s choice to hold a referendum on whether Britain should remain in the European Union, the Colombian government’s decision was a risk that didn’t pay off, notes The Independent. “[Both governments] believed the only way to gain legitimacy with the wider public was by receiving a mandate for their reforms. Yet as Colombians took to the streets of Cartagena today in protest of the vote, which holds a 0.48 percent majority, and as many Britons still refuse to accept the outcome of the EU referendum, it is clear their quests for unity have only left their peoples more divided.”

Implications of workplace democracy

In both cases, leaders clearly misjudged the true mood among the electorate and took an ill-advised gamble in a bid for future unity. It’s a dilemma that likely seems familiar to many CEOs. Increasingly, companies are trying to foster employee engagement by giving everyone more of a say in strategic decision making.

That approach has clear advantages if you need to be able to react nimbly to market changes, notes U.S. News & World Report: “One CEO may make decisions faster than a group, but the execution is often slower because employees will drag their feet if they don’t agree with what’s being done. Democratic companies may be slower in making decisions but faster in carrying them out because employees are invested in them.”

What’s more, with the skills gap becoming an increasing problem for many companies and the economy nearing full employment, the competition for the best talent is fierce. “The best and brightest employees will gravitate toward companies where their opinions get taken seriously. The younger generation of workers is accustomed to working in teams and speaking out through blogs. After seeing businesses like Enron crash and burn, they are also wary of secretive, autocratic companies,” notes U.S. News.

But what about the “Brexit effect”? Letting employees take part in key decisions could expose and even exacerbate existing divisions. As The Houston Chronicle puts it, “When employees have input, tension can arise within the ranks. Employees may find that their opinions conflict on various topics. This may go against a culture where teamwork and collaboration are emphasized.”

It’s also worth considering that many company leaders, just like those who lead countries, frequently get into their positions due to their superior knowledge and experience. “By giving employees a strong voice, you may risk taking decisions out of the hands of those that are most qualified,” The Chronicle adds.

In the end, there are no easy answers on democracy in politics or in business. The consensus of Western civilization holds that democracy is a value that must be upheld at all costs. But are there reasonable limits to popular decision making that need to be set to keep a country (or a company) functioning? And if so, who gets to decide?

The experiences of Colombia and the UK are likely to make democratic leaders more cautious about non-required referendums in the future. At the very least, they should serve as food for thought for CEOs as well.

Tina Irgang is the managing editor of SmartCEO magazine and Contact her at