Leadership 101: Are you a participative leader?

Gustavo Dudamel (pictured above) is considered by some to be one of the most prolific music directors and orchestra conductors working today. Dudamel is known for his love and passionate interpretation of music. He is also an excellent visual example of my latest exploration of prominent leadership styles: participative leadership.

In his book Leadership in OrganizationsGary Yukl noted the crux of the participative leadership theory is that the leader makes an effort to encourage and facilitate the participation of others in making important decisions. This theory aligns with what we see in human nature. The essence of a democratic society is that everyone has a say in what happens to and around them. The concept of “the majority rules” is simple, and has been ingrained in the mind since middle-school civics class. Many followers would like to have some influence in the decisions that are made on their behalf.

Participative leaders typically manage groups, not individual group members. They act as facilitators by delegating responsibilities and tasks to followers, thereby allowing them to exercise some sort of authority over their own responsibilities. The participative leadership model consists of three levels of decision-making:

  1. Consultation (little-to-no influence): The manager solicits opinions and ideas from followers, then makes the decision alone after seriously considering their suggestions and concerns.
  2. Joint Decision (some influence): The manager meets with followers to discuss the problem and they make a decision together. In this case, the manager has no more influence over the final decision than any other participant.
  3. Delegation (high influence): The manager gives an individual or group the authority and responsibility for making a decision. The manager usually establishes parameters in which the final choice must fall, and approval may or may not be required before the decision can be implemented.

Participative leaders generally seek to determine how to employ collaboration to maximize the performance of their followers so that organizational objectives can be achieved In their article “Music as a Metaphor for Organizational Change,” Saku Mantere, John Sillince, and Virpi Hamalainen likened this kind of collaborative organizational culture with music – specifically the development and performance of orchestral or group-based music (thus, my reference to Gustavo Dudamel).

The authors posited that participative leadership can be seen as jazz improvisation in which members are given music that sounds different from the other sections of the orchestra or band, yet those sounds come together to fuse notes pleasing to the listener…all the while being guided by a participative leader. The concept of participative leadership has inherent benefits, namely:

    • Decision Quality – The quality of the decision could be increased because of the knowledge and information gained from additional participants in the decision-making process.
    • Decision Acceptance – The decision is more likely to be accepted when followers consider themselves to be stakeholders.
    • Satisfaction with the Decision Process – People are more likely to believe that they are being treated with dignity and respect when they participate in making decisions that will affect them.
    • Development of Participant Skills – The experience of helping to make a complex decision can result in the development of more skill and confidence by participants. Participants who are involved in all aspects of the decision process learn more than participants who merely contribute to one aspect.

As laudable as these benefits may be, the danger of relying too much on the participative leadership theory in order to arrive at decisions is warranted – especially if followers favor a more transactional approach from their leaders.

I once consulted with a client who was so eager to create a collaborative culture that he created an almost iron-clad “participation is a must” environment. Every employee assigned to this leaders team was expected to go above and beyond their assigned work duties – and participate in every decision that affected the team.

Team members eventually grew tired of the constant delegation and endless meetings to discuss granular details to considered in order to make decisions. So much so, that the leader almost experienced a complete revolt – until we determined that his group favored a more transactional approach.

Effective leaders would do well to fully understand their followers before deciding to institute a sort of reverse “zero tolerance” policy that could eventually alienate his or her followers…and sabotage their chances for organizational success.


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