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What you need to know about participative leadership

Last updated

8 December 2023

Author

Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Warren Jonas ACC

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Organizational success often comes down to leadership style—the leader's ability to make effective decisions while keeping employees engaged and satisfied.

Participative leadership (sometimes called democratic leadership) is a popular method, formally introduced in 1961 by social scientist Rensis Likert (who also developed the Likert scale).

Let's look at this leadership style and its benefits.

What is participative leadership?

Participative leadership involves guiding employees to participate in effective decision-making. 

Instead of the leader or manager shouldering the entire responsibility, they delegate, collect opinions, review feedback, and lead the team to make a final decision.

A successful participative leader has an inclusive mindset, excellent communication and mediation skills, the ability to share power, and highly developed empathy. 

They must maintain a delicate balance between delegating significant decision-making and taking responsibility for outcomes.

Participation usually follows a structure like this

  • The leader shares information with the team

  • Team members discuss the decision opportunity and brainstorm solutions

  • They collectively narrow the possibilities

  • A final decision is made by the group (with leader guidance)

  • The team implements the decision

Even though the entire group participates, the leader is responsible for gathering opinions, sifting through suggestions, and helping the group choose a solution that aligns with organizational goals.

A participative leader creates an atmosphere of transparency, respect, creativity, and innovation. In such an environment, employees will likely thrive since they feel valued and recognized. 

Characteristics of a participative leader

Successful participative leaders have keen social intelligence (acquired naturally or with practice). The necessary traits typically include:

  • Open-mindedness—being open to new ideas, perspectives, and feedback from team members.

  • Active listening—paying close attention to what others are saying and seeking to understand different perspectives.

  • Empathy—demonstrating empathy and creating a safe space for open communication even if you disagree with the team member's opinions.

  • Collaboration—fostering a collaborative work environment where team members feel comfortable working together and sharing diverse ideas.

  • Flexibility—adapting to circumstances and modifying plans based on the input received from your team.

  • Trustworthiness—building trust by being reliable, honest, and consistent, including following through on commitments and maintaining confidentiality when necessary.

  • Coaching—helping employees develop new skills by providing guidance and support while fostering a learning culture. 

To succeed in a participative environment, leaders must have strong decision-making skills. However, they must be willing to adjust these decisions based on their team's input, even if they don't entirely agree.

Benefits of participative leadership

Participative leadership is a highly successful style that suits many companies. Google, Coca-Cola, Microsoft, and Amazon are some of the most well-known organizations that leverage participative leadership. 

The key benefits of this system are:

Higher employee engagement

Since participative leadership actively involves team members in decision-making, employees feel valued and recognized. This inclusive structure empowers team members and gives them a sense of belonging, increasing motivation and productivity.

Better decision-making

Each team member has a unique perspective and shares innovative opinions about the situation. 

Participative leadership generates broader ideas and viewpoints, potentially leading to more well-rounded decisions. 

Often, employees feel motivated to continue valuable contributions when they see their ideas and opinions implemented into the decision-making process.

More opportunities for creativity and innovation

Since participative leadership encourages collaboration and open communication, it creates a positive environment for creativity. 

This approach can help team members generate unique solutions that would not come to life with a more autocratic leadership style in which the manager has absolute power.

Increased employee satisfaction and retention rates

Participative leadership creates an environment of respect, trust, and inclusivity.

When employees feel their voices are valued and their contributions are recognized, they are happier with their work. Satisfaction leads to higher retention rates, and employees become ambassadors who might help with passive talent recruitment.

Unfortunately, a recent Gallup poll found that only one in four employees surveyed strongly believed their opinions count.

Skills development

Participative leadership provides opportunities for team members to develop leadership skills

Leaders can nurture their employees' critical thinking, problem-solving, and informed decision-making by involving them in decision-making.

This approach also encourages team members to take on more responsibilities and become more involved in the company's operations.

Culture of collaboration

Participative leadership encourages open and transparent communication between leaders and team members. This style promotes a culture of collaboration. 

Improved communication strengthens relationships within the team and builds trust with the leader. This results in more effective teamwork and better performance.

Disadvantages of participative leadership

While participative leadership can yield excellent results for many organizations, it has several downsides:

Unsuitable for urgent decision-making

Fast-paced work environments that frequently require on-the-spot decision-making will only sometimes benefit from the participative leadership style. 

When speed is of the essence, there isn't time to hear everyone's opinion, brainstorm ideas, and narrow the options to the most viable.

In these situations, companies may benefit from a more authoritarian style, relying on experience, knowledge, and expertise to make the final decision.

It doesn't work for decisions demanding high expertise

Successful teams usually consist of experts in their respective fields. However, each employee's expertise differs. 

When the leader has to make a decision that requires niche knowledge, they can't rely on the participative scheme to achieve results.

In these situations, the participative leader either makes the decision based on their expertise or relies on the assistance of one or two team members.

May fail with large teams

The bigger a company becomes, the harder it is to maintain the participative leadership structure. Eventually, the decision-making process slows down.

Listening to everyone's opinions and ideas is time-intensive.

Some people will disengage when their input isn’t reflected in decisions.

When an organization grows, other leadership styles tend to take over because the pace of the work changes, and so does the company culture.

Participative leadership may also fail when making a decision requires access to confidential information that only certain members of the team have.

Participative leadership in a remote environment

At first glance, it is hard to implement the leadership style in a remote environment since it requires constant interactions between team members. 

However, research shows participative leadership can keep remote employees engaged and motivated.

The autocratic approach can leave team members out of the loop and cause remote employees to feel detached. 

The organization would have to spend extra time and money on retention strategies to improve this.

Since participative leadership stresses collaboration, transparency, and encouragement, it keeps the team together even when everyone isn't physically present. 

All you need to reap the benefits of participative leadership in a remote environment are a strong structure and high-quality communication software.

Examples of participative leadership

Many famous leaders succeed with their companies and products by leveraging participative leadership styles. Here are a few examples:

Bill Gates, Microsoft co-founder

Praised for actively involving his team members in decision-making; Bill Gates is known for his participative leadership style. For example, while developing the Windows operating system, Gates encouraged open discussions and debates among his employees. He implemented their opinions and ideas to create a groundbreaking product.

Ginni Rometty, former executive chairman of IBM

After departing IBM, Rommetty wrote a powerful leadership guide, "Good Power: Leading Positive Change in Our Lives, Work, and World." In it, she shares proven conflict resolution techniques and insights on pursuing ambitions and embracing discomfort in both professional and personal spheres. Rometty emphasizes that the journey to success is as crucial as the goals themselves, urging readers to navigate challenges with curiosity and gratitude.

Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder and CEO of Meta

Zuckerberg, is another example of a participative leader. He tries to involve his team members in decision-making and foster a collaborative work environment. Zuckerberg encourages a culture of "hackathons" at Facebook, where employees from different teams come together to work on innovative projects and hone decision-making skills.

Reed Hastings

Known for fostering a culture of freedom and responsibility within the company, co-founder and former CEO Hastings actively involves his team members in decision-making sessions and encourages open communication. He has also co-authored a book called No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention with Erin Mayer.

Tips for implementing participative leadership

Communication the vision:

Communicate the organizational vision, encouraging open dialogue.

Empowerment:

Delegate tasks, grant autonomy and entrust employees with specific projects.

Regular forums:

Establish team meetings or brainstorming sessions to foster diverse perspectives.

Training programs:

Implement training programs for essential skills like communication and problem-solving.

Active listening:

Actively listen to and incorporate feedback, building a culture of trust.

Technology integration:

Leverage technology for virtual collaboration through digital platforms.

Recognition and rewards:

Acknowledge and reward individual and collective contributions.

Leadership commitment:

Ensure your leadership team is committed to consistently promoting participation.

Empower, engage, evolve

To recap, participative leadership is a strong way to lead. It's all about guiding your team to make decisions together, fostering teamwork, and keeping the communication channels open. If you're in the participative leader role, you're all about being open-minded, listening, empathy, and being a team player. The perks? Your team's more engaged, decisions are sharper, creativity is flowing, folks are satisfied, skills are growing, and there's a culture of collaboration. But it might not be the go-to approach for quick decisions, super-specialized stuff, or massive teams. 

If you're diving into this style, remember: to empower your people, get them talking often, train them up, listen hard, use tech wisely, encourage, offer rewards, and make sure you're continuously improving your leadership skills.

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