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  1. Blog
  2. Management
  3. April 27, 2021

Participative Leadership: Democracy in Action in the Workplace

The ayes have it

Odeon of Herodes Atticus, Athens, Greece
Photo courtesy of João Marcelo Martins

Your leadership style affects everything about your company or department from ideation and problem-solving to employee engagement and retention. Customer satisfaction is directly affected and so, too, is your bottom line.

Participative leadership can be extremely beneficial in all of these areas, with one major drawback: Group consultation simply takes more time than other forms of decision-making.

Still, when implemented correctly, the benefits of a participative leadership style of management are clear and hard to argue with.

Read more: Which of These 11 Leadership Styles Are You?

What is participative leadership?

Known as a democratic style of management, participative leadership is when the leader takes into consideration input from everyone in an organization or department when making decisions. It’s a shared leadership style because the decision-making process is shared among employees instead of relying on one person alone.

It is one of four styles, the others being autocratic, laissez-faire or hands-off, and paternalistic, the last often described as a benevolent dictatorship.

Read more: The Qualities That Make a Good Leader…and Those That Don’t

What kind of organizations work best with participative leadership?

Leadership coach Yashi Srivastava, cites three instances in which democratic leadership can be successfully practiced:

  1. In a company like Google that values innovation.

  2. When your workforce comprises younger employees, who want to be highly engaged and understood by their employer.

  3. When you are leading a team of experts.

You obviously would not employ this type of leadership style in any kind of emergency situation in which an immediate top-down decision is necessary. However, when time is not of the essence, participative leadership can work effectively both within departments and smaller teams as well as an overall strategic corporate approach.

Read more: Is an Open-Door Policy a Good Idea?

What are the pros and cons of a participative leadership style?

There are positive and negative aspects of leading through participation. One of the downsides is the time it takes.

Women’s leadership speaker and consultant Selena Rezvani tells InHerSight that “as great as this consultative style is, it takes a real investment of energy and time to decide how you’ll gather input, collect the input, analyze the input, then communicate what came of it! That means it’s less practical when you’re under tight time constraints or trying to complete a project that feels like a sprint.”

When asked whether she’s seen pushback to using participative leadership from her executive coaching clients, organizational psychologist Dr. Shahrzad Sherry Nooravi says yes, and that their arguments often cite time constraints as well as a sort of impatience based on the leader’s experience and knowledge. She provided the following conversational excerpts as examples:

  • “I get that there will be more ideas; however, it will also take longer. I’m under pressure with deadlines as it is.”

  • “I’ve been in this field for 20 years and between us, know my stuff. Going through this exercise of seeking input from everyone seems like it can be an exercise in futility.”

But the benefits are real and can be worth the investment of time.

In fact, Rezvani calls participative leadership “a great go-to when you have time to gather input from your people.” 

Why?

“You’re making people feel ‘seen and heard,’ which goes a long way to trust and engagement,” she explains. “This practice also sets the stage for people to be better collaborators and to reduce conflict and competition.”

There’s also the influx of different points of view to consider, Nooravi says.

“You will increase your innovation, receive a diversity of ideas that can inform your view as well as capture where you may have had a blind spot,” she clarifies. “Last, it will create a more inclusive and energized environment where your team feels valued and becomes more invested in future endeavors.”

Read more: Why a Personal Leadership Philosophy Is Important (Even if You're Not the Boss)

How can you use participative leadership to your advantage?

So how do you make this consultative time-consuming style of leadership work?

Be very clear from the outset, Rezvani advises.

“The key in using this style is to be crystal clear about the limits of employee input,” Rezvani says. “For example, management may be asking employees for their opinions before making an important decision. Management needs to communicate that they’ll consider feedback from employees, but ultimately, top brass makes the decision—which may or may not align with what employees want.”

If you’re moving from another form of leadership style to participative, Nooravi recommends starting slowly. “Your first small step can be to start with a familiar project where you’d seek input from a group of three or four team members.”

Once you’ve experienced success with that project, you can expand across departments until the entire organization has made the switch.

Nooravi’s clients “made the shift in their thinking to explore their assumptions, stories, and egos have shared that they had stronger outcomes, ‘a different energy in the air,’ and pleased customer responses.” They reported:

  • “I was reluctant in the beginning. Now I see the value and will negotiate to build in the extra time needed.”

  • “Our customers commented on how our latest offerings are more diverse. I can see the value of tapping into the diversity of our team because they will be reflected in the diversity of our clients.”

Read more: Emotionally Intelligent Leaders Are the New Successful CEOs

About our sources

Selena Rezvani is an author and speaker dedicated to helping women carve out leadership paths on their own terms. Through her LinkedIn Learning courses on confidence and presence, her workshops, and keynotes, she trains thousands of professionals each year on how to influence like a boss—and be seen and heard. She's the author of two leadership books: Pushback: How Smart Women Ask—and Stand Up—for What They Want, winner of an Axiom Business Book Award, and The Next Generation of Women Leaders: What You Need to Lead but Won't Learn in Business School

Dr. Shahrzad Sherry Nooravi is an organizational psychologist, master coach (MCC) and CEO of Strategy Meets Performance. She helps companies strengthen their culture and leadership through executive coaching, training and facilitation. Her current area of focus includes facilitated sessions on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI), Resilience and Mindfulness and Women's Leadership. She has been named Citizen of the Year, Trailblazer of the Year, and A Voice To Listen To for her community work and original research.

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Stephanie Olsen

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Stephanie Olsen is a freelance writer and copy editor. She writes about everything from women’s issues in the workplace and Ethiopian coffee culture to facilities management and expatriate life. Laughs uproariously at her own jokes.  

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