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February 19, 2021


What is participative leadership?

Group meeting to make decision in boardroom

It doesn’t matter what kind of product or output a business or organization offers—without effective leadership, it’s doomed to fail. There are many different kinds of leadership styles that help guide businesses, creative teams, and collaborative work environments to success. For example, situational leadership can be helpful in large-scale environments where a variety of personalities and approaches are employed, while adaptive leadership can assist in more challenging professional environments where change is constant. But one leadership style that’s getting a lot of attention right now is participative leadership. And there’s a good reason why: It’s incredibly effective when applied in the right environment.

Participative strategy in leadership is the practice of engaging in a team-based democratic approach to advance  a company, business, or project forward. The initial concept of this leadership style can be found in the Hawthorne experiments, which were conducted at Hawthorne Works in Illinois back in the 1930s—though their findings were linked to employee motivation rather than leadership. In the 50s, it was realized that during those studies, worker productivity had increased because employees were being observed. Meanwhile, another study from the 30s pinpointed three different leadership styles: democratic, autocratic, and laissez-faire. But a theory of human motivation that was introduced in 1943 had the biggest influence on the concept of participative leadership by detailing how human motivation can vary based on personality and needs.

The methodology behind being a participative leader is simple. Rather than employing a top-down approach to managing a team, everyone works together for the decision-making process and address company issues, sometimes employing an internal vote to address problems or challenges. It’s more of a democratic approach to leadership, where everyone in the company or organization gets a say in how things operate. Leaders encourage, involve, and utilize participation from everyone in decision-making and work—this makes group members feel better, improves morale, and helps everyone buy in to the goals of the organization. While it’s true that participative leadership isn’t necessarily the right approach for every company, its principles can still be applied within departments at larger companies or in smaller team settings within those departments.

Since participative leadership was identified in the 30s, the practice has been explored in historical studies and theories based on human motivation. But those explorations came to similar conclusions—namely, that this type of democratic leadership can lead to growth motivation by meeting the human need to self-actualize.

When is participative leadership most effective?

Participative leadership works best in environments that are lower pressure and not usually prone to quick turnarounds and need-it-yesterday projects. That’s because this kind of leadership takes time, especially if you’re working with a larger team or company. Getting everyone’s input or opinion doesn’t necessarily happen instantaneously, so democratic leaders have to be prepared for a delay before they're able to take any definitive action.

Some of the industries, organizations, and businesses where this kind of participation works best include universities, technology companies, and construction firms or other businesses where co-ownership is baked into the foundation of the company. Additionally, creative environments can benefit from a participative leader, where a group approach to brainstorming can create unique opportunities for problem-solving.

That’s not to say that larger-scale businesses or companies can’t use participative strategies to their advantage. Company-wide application could be overly challenging and bring progress to a grinding halt. But if used in departments within a company, or in smaller teams in those departments, participative decision-making and management offers a forward-thinking approach that can build team bonds and help everyone take ownership of a project, which can ultimately guide them to success.

Participative leadership styles.

There’s not one specific way to engage in this kind of participation—in fact, the practice exists on a spectrum that spans the high end of full company participation to the lower end of employee input that ultimately guides leadership in making their own decisions. The different approaches to participative leadership include:

  • Consensus decision-making: At the highest end of the spectrum, leaders allows employees to make company-wide decisions using a voting approach. The leader might facilitate the discussion, but ultimately, nothing moves forward until a unified agreement is reached.
  • Collective leadership: At the next highest position on the scale, this example is where leaders allow everyone across an entire organization the opportunity to work together. Employees from top to bottom make decisions as a group by dividing accountability equally.
  • Democratic leadership: This is where leaders invite everyone to offer their input on key issues or challenges, but the company’s leadership makes the end decision. In the event that employees have issues or concerns with said decision, leadership is expected to explain their reasoning and manage those issues accordingly.
  • Autocratic leadership: On the low end of the participative scale, this method still welcomes input from other employees, but leadership makes the end decision—and isn’t expected to explain themselves. Employees may have a say, but the leadership has the most power.

It can be tempting to jump into a new leadership style when it offers the opportunity to improve employee relations while strengthening your business. But before you take the leap, it’s a good idea to engage in more formal training to ensure you fully grasp the concept and are able to apply it effectively. 

A bachelor’s degree in business management or a master’s degree in management or leadership can set you up for success by helping you to understand the fundamentals of participative leadership and giving you the tools you need to be a sharp and confident leader.  And the best part? Taking these programs online means you can easily work your course load into your busy schedule, allowing you to learn at your own speed (and even apply what you learn in real time).

Boardroom meeting with visionary leader

What are the advantages of participative leadership?

When it comes to adopting a new leadership style, one of the questions every manager or leader has is, how will it affect the company? In the case of participative leadership, there are a lot of positives associated with the approach. Some of the advantages of participative leadership include:

  • Company-wide unity; Many companies attempt to create unity through team-building exercises or group outings, but involving employees in the decision-making process can do a lot more to help them feel like they’re a part of the company—especially when they’re involved in making decisions that can affect their day-to-day lives. 
  • Employee retention; Not only do many companies find that participative leadership cuts down on turnover and absenteeism, but employees tend to remember the decisions they were part of making and want to see those decisions come to fruition.
  • Higher morale: Participative leadership also supports employee well-being by making employees a more active part of the organization. When employees feel like more than just a number, they’re more likely to engage in company policy and enjoy their work.
  • Policy adoption: When employees feel they’ve had more of a hand in making the decisions that affect a project or company, they’re more likely to accept those decisions and work to execute them with more enthusiasm.
  • Creative thinking: Sometimes, management can get stuck in a loop that leads them to making stagnant or outdated decisions. By opening up the floor to employee input, creative thinking ensues—and that opens the door for cost-saving innovations, unique approaches to productivity and efficiency, and more.

What are the disadvantages of participative leadership?

That said, there can be some definite downsides to participative leadership, depending on the size or focus of your organization. Some of the disadvantages of participative leadership include:

  • Slow process: No doubt about it, this approach takes time—especially if you engage in the forms of leadership that exist on the higher end of the participation spectrum. If your company exists in a high-pressure industry that requires immediate decision-making, participative leadership may grind your advancement to a halt.
  • Challenging for large groups: The bigger your company, the more voices you’ll have to accommodate … and the more voices you have to accommodate, the more you’re likely to encounter differing opinions that may be difficult to resolve. That’s not to say it can’t be done; it just may take a lot more time to make space for everyone to be heard.
  • Information leaks: If your business or organization is in an industry that deals with sensitive information, this approach to leadership could lead to the public exposure of things that require privacy.  But you can’t expect people to make company decisions without all the information they need to come to a definitive answer. Without meaning to, employees may inadvertently share private information with the wrong people or misplace key documentation that could get into the wrong hands.
  • Indecision: Just because you give everyone a voice doesn’t mean they’ll always want to contribute. Conversely, some employees may feel strongly on one issue but not care much about another. Each of these instances make it hard to come to a collective conclusion.
  • Social pressures: Sometimes, no matter your best efforts, cliques or internal groups can form within companies, and that can create opportunities to influence people to vote on an issue in a way they may not want to. In those instances, managers need to be prepared to ensure employees can make their voices heard without retaliation and to encourage individuality.

Adopting a participative leadership style may have its challenges, but in many ways, the benefits make up for any implementation issues that may arise. Preparing yourself with an online management or leadership program could make all the difference in the successful implementation of this approach. Not only can adopting participative leadership create new opportunities for success, it can support your employees and enhance their quality of professional life—and that’s the most important part.

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