Robert Michels & The Iron Law of Oligarchies in Organizations

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  • 0:04 Michels' Iron Law of…
  • 0:58 A Democratic Organization
  • 2:19 The Development of Leaders
  • 3:46 Can True Democracy Exist?
  • 5:03 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Yuanxin (Amy) Yang Alcocer

Amy has a master's degree in secondary education and has taught math at a public charter high school.

Robert Michels paints a very interesting picture through the Iron Law of Oligarchies. This law explains the ideal that some employees can rise out of a democratic public organization to become leaders and main spokespeople for their establishment.

Michels' Iron Law of Oligarchies

Robert Michels, a historian who lived between 1876 and 1936, wrote a book in 1911 called Political Parties. In this book, he described a principle that he called the Iron Law of Oligarchy. According to Michels, if a democratic organization does not act truly democratic, then a non-democratic organization can never truly be democratic.

It sounds simple at first, but when looking further into this principle, you'll soon realize that many so-called democratic organizations are not truly democratic. Michels explains how an organization that claims to be democratic can end up being one that isn't; it can, in fact, turn into an oligarchy. An oligarchy is an organization that is run by a few specific individuals versus the consensus of all employees. This organization can be a large corporation or even an entire country.

A Democratic Organization

Let's envision an organization that has just launched and claims to be democratic. For this example, we'll say it's a grocery store, and everyone who works there owns part of the company as shareholders. The owners make it known to everyone that the company operates as a democracy and that all of the employees will get an equal say in how the business operates.

The owners schedule the very first company business meeting. Everyone that owns stock in the company is asked to be present, which includes all of the employees. Since this is the very first meeting, a lot of important decisions need to be made. As the meeting organizer begins to present the items on the agenda, making decisions proves to be difficult because everyone has a different vision as to how the company should operate. The discussion seems to get sidetracked frequently because too many people want to give their input. The group begins to notice this problem, and soon they subside, letting a few of the more outspoken employees take the lead. The group as a whole either agrees or disagrees with these vocal shareholders.

As the meeting continues, most of the group begins to concede to the decisions discussed and made by the employees who have taken the lead. Soon, these ''leaders'' begin holding meetings by themselves to discuss business matters. Originally, all of the employees' opinions were being considered. Now, all of the other shareholders are being left out.

The Development of Leaders

As these forthright workers begin to interact more with each other and with other top influential leaders, they shift from being employees who once embraced a democratic setting, to workers who now strive to increase the organization's power while maintaining their leadership positions. These members want to maintain the control they have. This way, when a new officer or manager is needed, they are ready to take on the responsibility and already have their foot in the door.

These employees develop into forerunners who have a lot of control over the organization. They know the ins-and-outs of the company, are familiar with the business world, and their leadership skills are sharpened. The other shareholders trust these leaders to make the right decisions, and for the most part, they don't question their actions. In a position of authority, you are often believed to have inside information that the rest of the group doesn't have access to, and this is usually true. For the most part, top-level employees know who their competition is; they anticipate what tactics are necessary to overcome and succeed.

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