Regardless of what sort of business a company is involved in, finding an effective leadership strategy is a crucial step in success. Given the type of work that is being done and the needs of the people involved, effective leadership can look very different from place to place.
One method for leadership that has been getting more attention recently is known as participative leadership. While it may not be suitable for every organization or team, allowing employees to help make decisions within the workplace can certainly have its benefits.
What is Participative Leadership?
The main feature of this style of leadership is collective decision making. The members of the team will come together and reach all decisions as a group. This is a highly democratic style of leadership that encourages participation from all employees, hence the name.
Participative leadership is the opposite of a top down leadership style. Instead, responsibility and authority are shared equally between every person involved. There is much less, if any, emphasis placed on hierarchy when it comes to decision making.
Renowned behavioral scholar, Kurt Lewin, is credited with formulating this leadership style. Lewin and his colleagues published a paper titled “Leadership and Group Life,” in which they describe three main kinds of leadership, one of them being Democratic. This concept is analogous to Participative leadership.
Types of Participative Leadership
Unlike many other styles of leadership, Participative leadership exists more on a spectrum. As a result, there are a few different methods for employing it, and it will not always look the same. The four most common categories are as follows:
- Consensus decision making
In its purest form, no decisions for the company will be made without complete group agreement about what should be done. There is no hierarchy, and responsibility for any outcome rests on every person.
- Collective leadership
While there is still emphasis on the whole group helping to make decisions, there may be some individuals that are assigned certain tasks or positions of authority. This can be appropriate if some team members are more highly skilled than others.
- Democratic leadership
This type allows for collective input however, the final decisions might be made by a board or select few people that have been chosen to lead. These leaders are often elected by the group at large or well trusted by the employees.
- Autocratic leadership
At the farthest end of the spectrum, one person will ultimately make all of the decisions but will still accept the input of others.
As with any leadership style, there are a few things that are expected to be in place before it can be most effectively implemented.
An important factor in participative leadership is the experience level of the employees. In order to make good decisions, staff must either be knowledgeable or willing to rely on the expertise of those who are.
This style of leadership also requires complete commitment from the business owners. If decisions that are collectively reached are turned over, staff will feel betrayed and like they are not trusted. Both the business owners and the employees must be ready to listen and honestly communicate in order to work together.
Many companies aim to foster a sense of unity among their staff. Whether it be through team building exercises or company outings, few tactics will be as successful as directly involving employees in business decisions. Allowing workers to have a say in how things are done will increase the feeling that you are all working towards success together.
- Employee retention
When people feel involved with and invested in the company that they work for, they are likely to spend more time there. Keeping employees for the long term has a multitude of benefits. Building a staff of experienced, dedicated, and knowledgeable workers can cut down on training costs as well as increase efficiency and quality of work.
Working together as a group, people often come up with solutions to issues that may not have been considered by a single person alone. Allowing for a variety of opinions to be voiced can lead to increased creativity and innovation.
- Employees accept decisions more readily
Since the people performing the work are also involved in making decisions, they will be more likely to follow through on goals. The resentment that comes from being told what to do by a “higher up,” who may be disconnected from the day to day operations, is completely avoided. Every team member may not always agree with the final decisions of the group, but at least they were able to have a voice in the process.
Organizing meetings for all employees to discuss decisions to be made takes a fair amount of time. The process is significantly slower than if one person were at the lead calling all of the shots. There is also the time cost of collecting and distributing information to all team members so that they are able to come to informed conclusions.
- Social pressure to conform
It could become the case that a minority of dominant people will take over the decision making process. In that case, people with differing opinions may feel pressured to go with the flow and show support, even if they disagree. This goes against the very principle of Participative leadership and measures should be taken to avoid it.
If an agreement cannot be reached, productivity or business advancement will be stalled. Without a clear strategy for conflict resolution or tie breaking, important decisions may not get made within the required timeframe. It is in times such as this, when some sort of hierarchy may be more important or helpful.
How to Use a Participative Leadership Style
There is a generally recognized progression for how this style of leadership is practiced. The six steps are as follows:
- Facilitate the conversation
- Openly share information and knowledge
- Encourage people to share their ideas
- Synthesize all of the available information
- Identify the best possible decision
- Communicate the decision back to the group
These steps provide a basic framework for how to organize group decision making. Following a general guideline can help to avoid disorganization and focus the group in a way that will lead them to quicker results.
In addition, open book management and employee investment opportunities are important for this style of leadership to succeed.
- Open book management
This is the practice of making all company information accessible to the employees. While it may seem like a scary thought to some business owners, sharing the company’s financial information with the staff is an important part of participative leadership. Having this data will allow workers to take all things into consideration as they decide how to act in the best interest of the company.
- Give employees investment opportunities
While it is not explicitly necessary, giving employees the option to financially invest in the company will lead to a higher level of dedication. Having a voice in how the business is run, in addition to seeing monetary benefits for success, creates a workforce with a high vested interest in doing the best work possible.
When to Avoid
- In large groups
Some participative practices can still be utilized for larger companies, but overall this style of leadership will be extremely inefficient for large organizations. The time and effort that it will take to get dozens of people to agree on a solution to a problem is potentially unreasonable.
- If decisions need to be made quickly
Some businesses may require actions to be taken quickly. This may not allow for the time needed to consult the group before decisions must be made. In these scenarios, full consensus participative leadership might not be the best option.
- If employees are unwilling to participate
It might go without saying, but not every employee will be interested in taking part in significant business decisions. There could be a variety of reasons for this, ranging from lack of interest in the company itself to not having trust that their voice will actually be heard. Before implementing this style of leadership, it may be a good idea to talk it over with your staff to gauge their interest.
Participative Leadership Examples
It is easy to find excellent examples of participative leadership within worker’s cooperatives. Companies that have been set up from the start, or reorganized, to be owned and operated by the people who work there.
There are also many examples of companies that utilize some aspects of participative leadership without being fully collectivized. This could include regular all staff meetings, to provide opportunities for people to discuss concerns or to get updated on business details. It could also include employees voting for who will be given positions of authority.
Although it may seem counterintuitive to highlight single individuals, given the collective nature of this leadership style, there have been some notable people that have facilitated successful businesses using participative leadership.
In 1982 Weinzweig was a co-founder of what was to become the Zingerman’s community of businesses. They started with a deli and a mission statement to “enrich as many lives as they possibly can.”
Zingerman’s has grown to be a group of 15 companies worth over 20 million dollars. They have been applauded for their unique style of management, which has largely been the key to their success.
All of the Zingerman’s businesses rely heavily on input and direction from the people who work there. In fact, they reached such a high number of individual companies under their umbrella by empowering employees to branch out and start their own. The growth of their business has been a direct result of their willingness to invest in and trust the people that work with them.
Their businesses are well known for having happy employees that truly love their work. Having a content and motivated staff has given them the ability to provide customer service so good that books have been written about it.
As a founder and former CEO of New Belgium Brewing, Kim Jordan was able to show that enacting the principles of participative leadership can lead to impressive business success.
The brewery was first opened in Colorado in 1991, and in 2000 enacted an employee stock ownership plan. By 2013 the company was completely employee owned and worth over 150 million dollars.
Even more impressive than their monetary success is that they have reported employee turnover rates of under 3% annually. For any large company this is extremely uncommon and certainly speaks to a major benefit of participative leadership.
Jeremy Thaler and Connie Potter
In 1976 they founded the Once Again Nut Butter company with a mission statement to “spread integrity.” Today the company is worth over 50 million dollars and has been worker owned since 2006.
In addition to being employee owned, they use a voting system to give their workers a voice how the company is run. Monthly meetings are held to address operational issues, finances, and business decisions. Employees each get a vote and have the space to give their input on various issues.
Once Again’s board of directors is staff elected, as well as always containing at least three employee owners. Using this method, they keep some level of hierarchy, while still maintaining the underlying principles of employee control.
While a participative style of leadership may not be right for every workplace, implementing some aspects of it may be beneficial for many companies.
Allowing employees to have more of an active role in the decision making process of the business increases both staff retention and job satisfaction. Working together as a team, rather than simply being told what to do can create a more positive work environment that fosters innovation and personal growth.
With all of these details in mind, perhaps it is time for you to go out and give participative leadership a try.