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Participative Management – Dead or Alive?

employee engagement, Theory, Participative Management
Posted by Seghers, Ray at Monday, 08/31/2009 4:57 pm
  • Currently 2.9/5 Stars.
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2.9 from 56 votes
As a sales tool, I think it is dead. I would not recommend that a consultant hang out a shingle selling participative management. As a day-to-day concept, however, there is still some life to it even though not in the full sense in which was originally conceived. After all, the whole concept behind employee surveys is participation and involvement.

The roots of participative management go way back to Rensis Likert’s 1961 book New Patterns of Management, with refinements and a survey in his 1967 book The Human Organization. Ren listed four systems of management – Authoritarian, Benevolent authoritarian, Consultative, and Participative. During the 1970’s and 1980’s employee surveys, among other interventions, were used to move managers/organizations closer to System 4 Participative. Then things changed.

So, what happened? Why did it not catch on here in the U.S. Two reasons stand out – a misunderstanding about the role of a manager and a misunderstanding about the nature of teams.

Most managers, including those at organizations that were trying to implement participative management, never got it. They assumed that their function as a manager/leader/boss/supervisor was gone, that they were mere cheerleaders to the team. As soon as they were told otherwise they would become autocratic. As soon as this was pointed out they went back to cheerleading. They could never find the proper middle ground. It turns out that being a participative manager is harder than it seems. The best that most managers could become was a Consultative Manager (System 3 in Likert’s terminology). They did a good job of sharing information and soliciting input but never quite got the group to actually make the decision. The problem was, as Ren had pointed out, that System 3 was the most unstable of the four systems. Most groups fell back to a more autocratic, though benevolent, management style.

Related to this was, of course, the concept of team. Most managers when hearing the work “team” thought about a sports team such as doubles tennis or beach volleyball where all the players performed all functions/positions fairly equally. So, they sought to create work teams where everyone was equal –a noble concept but oftentimes unrealistic and certainly unproductive. A better sports analogy would be a baseball team. On the field you have nine players with specific roles to play. Some members never interact with others. (For example, the left fielder and the right fielder are not often involved on the same play.) But they are still on the same team and they still have the same goal – to win.

So, the concept has lost its luster, but in talking with other consultants, I would argue that many of the underlying principles are still being used today.

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