The Fantasy of Participative Management 

Once upon a time there was this wonderful place where employees were part of teams that decided how things were going to be done in the future. The employees always chose the path that was best for the company and/or customer and never let how that path affected them or their job be a significant part of their decision. The bosses always supported the decisions made by the teams whether they agreed with them or not. When things didn’t work out, the bosses took the blame. That was their job; that and making decisions about items so insignificant they don’t warrant the attention of a team. Every one always agreed what was that trivial. The employees not part of a specific team always supported the decisions made by others even when the decisions made their job harder. The team meetings were all very efficiently run and took very little of the participants’ time. All decisions were unanimous and pleased all. The employees were happy, the bosses were happy, and they all lived happily ever after.

What a wonderful place to work! I bet you wish you could work there. Unfortunately, I don’t know where it is. There are certain ideas that are wonderful in concept, but whose time hasn’t come. Can anyone argue against the idea of the lion lying down with the lamb? Yet, at present, if it happens, it’s going to be bad news for the lamb. Formalized participative management falls in the same category. It’s wonderful idea, but the world isn’t ready for the way it’s currently packaged.

It’s obvious to me why formalized participative management programs were developed. People saw the success of managers who involved their people. The managers who listen to their people and value their input get much better results. The boss who listens to employees and then acknowledges when an employee’s idea was successful produces a dedicated work force. The difference between what works and the current programs is that the participation is not formalized. 

Formalization invites problems. The effective boss talks to his people individually and weighs their input. If he feels the ideas are good, he acts on them. If he feels the employees’ ideas are self-serving or simply won’t work, he takes the appropriate inaction. The employees haven’t invested the time needed by formalized plans to reach a consensus decision just to have the boss say “no way.” Spending time in meetings to decide something only to have the boss overrule the decision makes unhappy employees and loss of respect for the boss.

Another of the problems formalization brings is the inefficiency of meetings. Without the formal program, the boss listens to people when convenient to both and loses very little productive time. With the meetings, there’s the time loss of the group waiting for the last person to show up, the time spent catching up the person who was off during the previous meeting, not to mention the meeting time spent discussing irrelevant details. (Can you tell that I’m not a fan of meetings?)

Thinking a boss will defer all decisions to the consensus of a group is rather naïve, especially when it’s her neck on the line. Hopefully, the boss grew to her position by making good decisions and being assertive enough to accomplish beneficial changes in the operation. The formalized participative management expects her to abandon those characteristics that earned her that current position. She’s now expected to go along with the decision of the group; even when she “knows” what they’re proposing won’t work. It sounds to me like we’re trying to paint spots on a tiger.

If participative management works great but formalized systems don’t, what’s the answer? The answer is simple, but not easy. Simply make people boss who will not only listen to but also seek out the thoughts of the employees - the person who will not only give credit to employees for ideas but will accept the blame when those ideas don’t work. (The boss should take the blame. After all, it was the boss who gave the approval to try the idea.)

Why not easy? While we know it takes everyone working together to really get things done, it’s easy to overlook the person who gives away the credit. The person who spends time telling us about the problems “they” solved and what “they” are going to do impresses us. The person who listens to others and gives credit to them doesn’t appear to be a “star,” but most likely is.

So, instead of thinking about starting a new participative management program, think about the next promotion you’re going to make. Are you going to promote someone who “knows how to” fix all your problems or someone who will get her people to fix them?

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