Are You Sure You Want To Be A Participative Manager?

Many leaders start down this path but...are they just asking for trouble?

A manager recently approached me and asked, "All this 'participative management' stuff sounds great, but will it work with my people?'

Most "participative" managers will fail!

As we continued to talk, I realized that "participative management" probably would not work in her company, and I said so.

From the way she had phrased her opening question, I expected her to be relieved. It didn't sound like she was really very interested in "participative management" and was looking for verification of a decision not to proceed.

But I was startled when she expressed disappointment and resistance to my response.

Then a deeper level of truth came out. She wanted to be seen as a participative manager. In fact, it was so important that she not be seen as authoritarian, "don't do it" was not an answer she was willing to accept from me!

Why had I suggested she not proceed?

As I listened to her, I realized she was looking to participative management as a solution to some leadership problems she was experiencing. That's not the purpose or value of a participative management program.

Participative management is a process...a method...or a mindset. It is a structure that is only effective as a channel for your people's energy. It is not a solution to a leadership void or concern.

Having said that, your people's active participation is essential if you want them to be empowered, initiative-taking, productive individuals. So what is the solution?

It's a well-kept, but obvious, secret!

Here's a secret that's so obvious its overlooked by most managers today. But confident leaders are well aware of it, and use it to ensure everyone's success: People do what they really want to do!

That's right. Everyone does what compels them at the moment...what they assume or believe to be in their best interest at that time.

Would you believe that some people are working for you right now just to get enough money to get their "moonlight" business going at night? Others are only with you today because they can't stand their spouse, and this job provides a convenient way to get out of the house for at least 8 hours! And if you hire teenagers, they may only be there until they have saved enough money to buy the "clunker" on the corner car lot for $200!

Put another way, everyone has their own mission...whether they know what it is or not...whether they share it with you or not. Everyone does what they find compelling... what they believe will fulfill their mission...at the moment.

As boss or manager, you're entitled to determine what your people find "compelling" while they're at work!

One common way to do that is to be authoritarian...to "dictate" what people are to do. If that works, great. But it usually doesn't work for long.

When that approach wears out, people, like our leader, often turn to "participative" solutions. That may also work for a while. But all too often it deteriorates into frustration and confusion.

The problem with participation as a solution is that the leader literally abdicates their responsibility to create a compelling reason for people to invest their energy in an aligned and productive fashion! Group grope...without clear purpose...has never worked for long.

If you're going to be successful over time, you must ensure everyone is eager to align with, and fulfill, a compelling mission for your company...not just submit to your latest dictate or directive...or "make it up" themselves.

If you don't, your people will find new, and ever more ingenious, ways to either get around your directives or play "politics" in a "non-directive" environment. Ultimately, they simply get on with what really interests them a lot more...their own mission.

But what if you're like most companies, and don't have a mission?

Well, it's going to be very difficult for you to align and channel all those various and conflicting compelling interests that are working for you!

In short, without a clear organizational purpose, it will be virtually impossible for a participative management program to be effective.

Without a clear, core mission...a clear reason why the organization exists...it is foolish and even dangerous to institute, much less depend on, a participative management process!

Systems or processes...no matter how good...are rarely compelling to people.

It's brutal, I know, but believe it or not, nobody gets out of bed in the morning to come to work to make your system, process, or structure work...even if they get to "participate" in it! They come to work to fulfill whatever they find most compelling...and rarely is that drive a participative program!

Our manager did not have a clear mission for her company, so without that, I suggested she not begin a "participative management" program. But this leader was like everyone else...she was going to do what compelled her...regardless of anyone else's input. She was going to fulfill her drive to not be seen as authoritarian.

If you implement a participative management process without a clear organizational purpose you're not just asking for...you're going to get...trouble. Your employees won't know how to act, or how to measure or judge the decisions they're suddenly being asked to make. It won't be long before the "inmates are running the prison."

But, can inmates in a prison be "participative"?

It may surprise you to learn that one of the most successful participative management programs has been in a federal prison! It was only successful because the warden had determined...and made clear to everyone...the mission of the prison.

You see, the warden didn't believe that the purpose of prison is to punish prisoners. (The prisoners might not have been too eager to "participate" in that!) He said that being sent to prison was the punishment. The purpose of the prison, he declared, was to hold the prisoners while they paid their debt to society. That clear mission could be much more easily fulfilled when the inmates took an active, participative role!

If our manager wants to be a successful participative manager, she must first clarify the reason her organization exists. Only then will employees begin to see a path to align their interests and "participate" in the purpose. Only then does participative management stand a chance of working for everyone.

Do you want to be a participative manager? First define the reason your organization exists!

© 1995, Dick Barnett, Barnett & Kutz, Inc.