Imagine a train driven by a steam or diesel engine. One engine controls and directs the movement of the whole train. Now imagine an electric train or a metro. Every carriage has it’s own motors and electric supply, contributing to the speed of the whole train, every coach participating in the movement.
In the analogy above, the steam engines are like conventional leaders who keep the decision making power to themselves and the rest of the team merely follows them around. On the other hand electric trains represent a more modern style of leadership where everyone is encouraged to participate in driving the team and organization ahead.
So what is participative growth? It is a paradigm of management based on respect and engagement of the employees. It harnesses the diversity of different minds and actions, to result in better outcomes for the organization. In simpler terms, it is a way of leading people by allowing them to lead. Sounds strange, but it is an important aspect of organizational growth, especially from a managerial perspective.
Styles of Leadership for Participative Growth
The conventional way of leading is the autocratic one, whereby the leader makes all the decisions himself, and the subordinates have no say in the process. However, this does not work for participative growth, for obvious reasons. Different ways of leadership have to be explored to make this possible.
The “democratic” style, simplest form of participative leadership, transfers the responsibility of making decisions to the whole team. True to its name, this is mostly done by a voting-like procedure, giving everyone chance to choose a particular course of action. And of course, the majority wins. While this method does allow everyone to participate, and makes decision making relatively fast, it leaves no one responsible for the outcomes.
Another way of leading is the “consensus” style. Slightly different from the democratic style, this requires all members of the team to come to an agreement for the decision. Hence, more discussions and debates become necessary, which take more time and effort from everyone. Nevertheless, the decisions made in this way are one of the best as they utilize the skills and knowledge of everyone.
Lastly, there is the “collective” style, which is the one used mostly by organizations worldwide. The employees are allowed to contribute to the decision making process and have some say in it, but the power to finalize the decisions and the responsibility of its outcomes lies with the leader.
Although these styles allow a more comprehensive contribution from the team, sometimes the situation demands more urgent decisions to be made. In that case, of course, the traditional way of autocratic leadership works best.
Roadblocks to Participative Growth
Any group work is only as effective as its members are willing/able to participate. A frequent issue is that the team members tend to be quiet and submissive. Employees lack the confidence to speak up and voice out their views and opinions to higher management. While this is true to some extent, accepting this as an unchangeable fact of life merely worsens the problem. Leaders can work towards correcting this handicap.
Apart from the employees being unwilling to participate, some managers themselves do not allow enough participation in their teams. A major reason is that they think they must portray the image of a tough and independent leader who can make decisions without the help of his subordinates. To be seen as an effective manager and not to appear weak, they try not to involve them in the process or ask their opinion. Some just feel good by being in control, having the power to run the organization in the ways they like and perceive best.
While analysing these behaviours and attitudes of the leaders and followers alike, it becomes crucial to step back and realise that the problem lies in the organizational culture. In most traditional and hierarchical structures, the employees expect their managers to make decisions and the managers expect the employees to follow them.
Finally, time constraints can also be a factor preventing leaders from consulting their teams, as it takes time and effort from both the parties.
General Approach to Promote Participative Growth
Understanding the issues hindering participative growth, allows us to devise a better approach to promote it in our teams. Let me elaborate on the various ways in which a leader can let his team be more involved and yet be in control of the process.
It is very important to set the right expectations, right from the start. Whenever you are assigned to oversee a new project or team, or a new member joins your existing group, make sure that everyone understands what how they are supposed to do work with you and not under you. It is essential to to tell them how their success and performance will be measured, not just by following orders but also by providing their ideas and criticism. The sort of behaviours and approaches necessary for participative growth must be clearly communicated to the team.
In order to enable everyone to participate, you must also make them realize the big picture. They should understand why their section and team are doing what they do, and how does it all fit in the goals of the unit as a whole. By having a clear idea of how their actions contribute to the success of the organization, and also what are the implications of their under-performance, employees start to feel more motivated to contribute. They develop a sense of belonging and responsibility.
After this, create an environment that encourages participation from everyone. Build an atmosphere of mutual respect, shared responsibility and trust. More importantly, be friendly with your employees and make them feel at ease while talking to you. Don’t worry, this doesn’t make you look weak, only makes you more approachable. Opening up channels of communication and being honest with the team will go a long way in changing everyone’s attitude towards work.
Now comes the real part, the participation itself. Involve your team in making decisions. This is where you need to choose from the 3 styles of participative leadership. While the “collective” style serves well in most situations, go with the “democratic” for making small decisions and the “consensus” style for more important long-term decisions that deserve more thinking and planning.
Participative growth constructively focuses energy from everyone involved for the betterment of the whole organization. It deepens individual and collective learning, resulting in real development. While this more sustainable and empowering form of growth has its challenges, with a little effort and planning it can be made possible.