Participative Leadership

Leadership 101 is a series I’ll be doing on different leadership theories, models, and ideas as they pertain to the practice of engineering. Today’s topic is participative leadership.

I am often asked about leadership, how its defined, how to develop leadership skills, and the like. The trouble with answering questions like these is that leadership is actually a very broad topic. It’s a very active field in academia because, well, we haven’t totally figured it out yet! That means that there’s plenty to learn and plenty to talk about.

My goal is to create something of a leadership repository here on the blog for you to refer to in the future. A one-stop shop for engineering leadership.

There’s lots to talk about, so without further adieu, let’s get into it.

Participative Leadership Defined

Participative leadership is a bit like a democracy. In this model, the leader gives followers the authority to make important decisions. Followers are provided with the pertinent information they need and are asked to propose a way forward.

The leader still wields influence over the decision-making process in that they decide who to include in the group that makes the decisions and what decision needs to be made. For example, the leader could try and sell a given idea and then only allow people they feel will be receptive to that idea in on the decision-making process. From this standpoint, participative leadership vary quite a bit. It can be very participative, only nominally participative, or somewhere in between.

A closely related idea to participative leadership is Management by Objectives. In this management model, managers come up with what needs to be done and staff are asked to participate by coming up with how the manager’s what should be accomplished.

Advantages of Participative Leadership

There are some important benefits to participative leadership. When followers are engaged in making decisions for the group, they tend to be more creative, content, and committed.

Creative – People who work in a group to come up with a solution tend to be more creative than a single individual. This leads to the possibility of better solutions to a given problem.

Content – Followers tend not to like being told what to do (I know I’m one of them!). This is especially true in an engineering context, where the people on your team are smart, accomplished, capable people. When a team is included in the decision making process, as is the case in participative leadership, they feel valued as people. This can be a great boost to morale for the group.

Committed – When a group makes a decision that affects the group itself, it is likely that there will be greater commitment to turning that decision into action and actually making things happen. Contrast that will a group who’s boss just tells them what to do all the time…. The group that helps to lead itself will absolutely be more dedicated to the cause.

Downsides to Participative Leadership

As beneficial as participative leadership is, there are some downsides to consider before adopting this particular form of leadership. In this form of leadership, decisions tend to be slower, and there is risk of having the model backfire on you.

Slow decisions – Since decisions are being made by a group, everything takes much longer. If you’ve ever tried to organize a group of friends to get out to see a movie, you know exactly what I’m talking about here. There’s effort tied to choosing the right group of people to make the decision, sharing the relevant information, coordinating them to get their feedback… it’s a heckuva lot more work than just making a decision yourself.

Backfiring – If, for whatever reason, the leader decides to chose a path other than that prescribed by the group, watch out, because there’ll be trouble. In some cases, it’s reasonable for a leader to go against their team’s decision, but if done too often, then the group will end up resenting the participative leadership process (and the leader, for that matter).

Should you be a participative leader?

I think participative leadership is a very valuable approach to leading a team in an engineering context. Given how bright most engineering teams are, why not give the team an opportunity to solve tough problems? Isn’t that what engineers are paid for in the first place?

That being said, I don’t believe that participative leadership makes much sense as a default style to adopt as a leader. I think of it more like it’s a tool in your leadership utility belt. It can be a very useful too in the right circumstances, so long as you don’t need an answer urgently, and you fully plan on implementing whatever the group comes up with, go for it.

Be seen as a leader

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