Traditional companies mostly exist to make money for their owners. Worker cooperatives do that too, but often have several additional goals. Like traditional companies, they have a business plan to ensure that those goals are always in view. Traditional companies typically have an authoritarian leadership style. If you are unhappy, your only option is to leave the company. Worker cooperatives, on the other hand, are democratically governed. The purpose of democracy is for different views to come together for the good of the community. Sometimes, views are strongly held and conflicts arise. Conflicts may be unpleasant, but they are a reality of life in community.
In her book, Creating a Life Together: Practical Tools to Grow Ecovillages and Intentional Communities, Diane Leafe Christian says that the main reason intentional communities, a form of cooperative housing, fail is conflict. The trick is to know how to deal with conflicts. Better yet, know how to prevent them from occurring in the first place.
If, in our increasingly polarized society of today, you were to put a random group of people together and expect them to work together, you will no doubt have conflicts. From day one children are conditioned to compete with each other. They have to walk first, talk first, run faster, have better grades, be captain of the football team or the cheerleaders. The average person is just not prepared to be in community like God created us to be and conflicts will arise. So, the first thing to do is to avoid putting random people together in the first place. Instead, before committing to a new member in your cooperative, have an honest conversation about the person’s values. Is he/she willing to yield for the good of the community as a whole? Does he/she subscribe to the idea that a group can achieve more than the sum of their individual efforts?
Conflicts will occur despite your best effort to avoid them. Key to avoiding conflicts, Diane Christian says, is communication. Have clearly defined goals for your organization. Have clearly defined methods for governing your organization. When you get stuck, have a method for resolving the issues. Get trained in how the participatory democratic process works. Use outside facilitators for discussions. Have frequent, scheduled meetings where everyone participates.
Workplace democracy may seem like a lot of work. It may seem unproductive at times. After all, you cannot sell it. It is, however, of vital importance for the wellbeing of the cooperative so please do not skimp on this. Have weekly work meetings. This is how you develop new ideas for how to work together. This is how you prevent minor conflicts from blowing up and sinking your company in the process.