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What Is Participative Leadership?

December 21, 2021 Leadership
Kaya Ismail
By Kaya Ismail

Participative leadership is a leadership style whereby leaders listen to their employees and involve them in the decision-making process. It requires an inclusive mindset, good communication skills and the ability — and inclination — to share power. 

Sometimes called democratic leadership, it is one of three leadership climates categorized by social psychologist Kurt Lewin in the 1930s. In general, participative leaders delegate responsibilities and provide feedback that fosters professional growth. They ensure transparency so every member of the team can see how their role fits into the bigger picture and helps achieve better results.

Once a leadership staple of many organizations, participative leadership has suffered under the new remote workplace, mainly because of the lack of candid, spontaneous communications that are more typical of an on-site office setting. Here are some tips for applying this leadership style to the new work environment. 

What Is Participative Leadership?

Participative leadership encourages collaboration by promoting accountability in individual roles and coming together to find solutions, rather than pointing fingers when problems arise. When asked about participative leadership, Scott Hirsch, CTO at Vancouver, Canada-based recruiting software firm TalentMarketplace, likened it to a democracy.

"Every group member is able to have a say in decision-making," he said, adding that the difference between democratic leadership and participative leadership is that the group as a whole is the ultimate decision-maker. "There is no leader because everyone is on the same level." 

Participative leadership helps build trust by demonstrating the importance and value of the team's opinion on important matters. In a participative workplace, success becomes possible through creativity, innovation, problem-solving abilities, collaborative spirit and open mindsets, which are all necessary for any company looking at growth opportunities.

Related Article: How to Practice Servant Leadership in the Digital Workplace

What Is a Participative Leader?

A participative leader takes into account the perspective of everyone on the team and encourages each team member's involvement in the process. This allows everyone to be on the same page and provides a sense of fulfillment in having contributed to the team's success.

"Being a participative leader means that you involve your entire company in how decisions are made," said Hays Bailey, CEO of Melbourne, Australia-based workforce technology firm Sheqsy. "You should be providing the necessary information that is influential in the decision-making process and encouraging everyone to provide their input." 

Participative leadership also places importance on keeping employees informed and aware of the value of their contributions. If applied properly, it encourages a free flow of ideas, improves morale and boosts employee retention.

Related Article: What Is Situational Leadership?

Participative Leadership in a Remote Work Environment

There are obvious challenges to a participative leadership style in a remote work setting, but there are also ways to apply it successfully to strengthen the company's culture and boost growth. Here are some tips:

Hear Your Team's Concerns 

Participative leaders listen to their team's thoughts and concerns — and factor them into their decisions.

"Leaders who listen often find that when decisions are reached by general consensus, employees will accept policies more quickly, reducing the amount of pushback that new company policies will face and expedites the process of implementing new ideas," said Tyson Stevens, founder of Washington, D.C.-based EduRef, a lesson-planning resource site for teachers.

Such a leadership style also provides employees with a more personal stake in the success of the company, by enabling them to participate in the process, which promotes greater support of corporate policies and decisions.

Create Virtual Spaces for Thought Sharing

One of the drawbacks of the remote office is that employees can't "pop by" a manager's desk for a frank discussion; this creates communication silos.

To prevent or dismantle silos, Brad Touesnard, founder and CEO of Nova Scotia, Canada-based website development firm SpinupWP, suggests companies "create spaces where participation is expected and encouraged. This encourages creativity and innovation, and can be accomplished by creating virtual spaces where everybody is encouraged to contribute, and all voices are heard."

Encourage Accountability

Since every person on the team is expected to contribute to the decision-making process, employees in a participative work environment tend to feel more responsible and accountable for the outcome of a project. This not only reduces finger-pointing and dissonances between team members, it also translates into happier and more productive teams than those in top-down environments.

Participative Leadership Pitfalls

Participative leadership is most effective in an environment that encourages inclusivity and the professional growth of employees. Companies that value and encourage employees to voice their opinions and hone their skills tend to develop more confident teams that come up with better ideas. But this style of leadership isn't conducive to all environments. 

"Participative leadership does not work in a fast-paced environment where tasks are 'need-it-yesterday,'" said Steve Anevski, CEO of Upshift, a Cincinnati, Ohio-based app for hiring hourly workers. "These are mostly larger organizations that do not have time for discussions with everybody and need work to be completed as soon as possible."

Leaders in this type of environment should remember that the participative nature of remote work democratizes operations, which can, in turn, make up for the company's lack of nimbleness in that regard.

It's also essential for leaders to understand the difference between participation and indecisiveness. Indecision can prove costly, as valuable opportunities can be missed. To implement a participative leadership style successfully, in a remote work setting or an in-office situation, it is fundamental to first designate and empower decision-makers who will drive the broader team's participation and prevent the process from becoming a free-for-all. 


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