Saturday, August 28, 2004

Getting followers to participate in decision-making 

Today’s Recruit section of The Straits Times featured an article written by consultant Peter Block. In the article, Block described what he called a simulation in which teams were asked to role-play three different styles of leadership.

Team 1 role-played a high-control, patriarchal leadership style. Team 2 practised cosmetic empowerment, that is, espousing participation but not really giving up control. Team 3 role-played genuine participation and empowerment.

What he found out from the simulation were as follow:

  • People prefer to be led by patriarchal leadership. Decisions were made quickly and efficiently.

  • The expectation of followers create the leaders they receive.

  • In other words: “High-control bosses are created by our reluctance to care for the whole and assume the risks inherent in our own freedom.”

    The findings are interesting, but his conclusion that people prefer patriarchal leadership probably applies only within the context of the simulation.

    It is a well-known fact that for short-term results, authoritarian leadership works best. The simulation is obviously a situation where results are needed quickly. Little wonder then that the authoritarian style worked best.

    True participation of followers in decision-making, on the other hand, cannot simply be forced onto a team. Followers willingly participate in decision-making only within a proper organisational framework that takes into consideration the following:

    Their access to management thinking — Most people would be aware that good decisions are usually those that are aligned with the organisation’s overall strategy as well as address higher management’s perception of the problem. That’s why organisational visions are important. If these are not properly shared, followers would feel uneasy getting involved in decision-making.

    Compatibility between their required contribution and their competencies — People prefer to contribute when they can look good, that is, in their area of competency. An accountant, for example, would not expect to play a major role in formulating a technological vision. The person presiding over discussions must have the skill to draw out contributions from the appropriate person at the appropriate time.

    Proper reward and recognition for their contributions — People would not like to see someone else — most likely management — take all the credit for their contributions. This means that management must first gain the trust of their subordinates that they would be recognised and rewarded for their contributions. Depending on the pre-existing culture of the organisation, this may not be an easy thing to do.

    Leadership — Yes, this is still needed in a participatory leadership style. Followers participate, but not all decisions can be delegated to them. Some decisions must remain the prerogative of the manager, the leader. In a team where many participate in the decision-making and put their egos on the line, leadership skill may in fact be especially important. Participatory leadership is not an excuse for wimpish leadership.

    In the absence of the above framework, followers may become cynical about participative decision-making and see a requirement to contribute to it as an abdication of management responsibility. In the simulation, it would obviously not have been possible to put such a framework completely into place, so this was exactly what happened. No surprise then that in that situation, people preferred to be led by patriarchal leadership.


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