Participative Leadership: What it Is and When it Works Best

participative leadershipIf you are the leader of an organization or company, you probably have a dominant leadership style. Theories and studies have been done for years on types of leadership styles and what works best within an organization. Some studies have reported participative leadership is the most effective style, while others have shown inconclusive results.

Since leaders often need to change the way they solve problems based on that specific problem, situation or setting, a good leader will need to use a variety of leadership styles. Our students learn how to develop their own leadership style, and the benefits of each, by taking our course Developing Your Leadership Style. Understanding the different types of leadership styles and how each works in a company is important.  You may find that you need to evoke more of an authoritative leadership style in one instance, while participative leadership would actually move the team forward better in another. At times you may have more information or knowledge about a situation than your team; at others, you might find involving your team brings to the table ideas you might not have considered.

Participative Leadership: What it is

So what exactly is participative leadership? Since a derivative of the word participate is in the name, it’s obvious that this type of leadership style requires participation.

In participative leadership, the leader turns to the team for input, ideas and observations instead of making all decision on his or her own. That’s not to say the leader doesn’t have the ultimate decision making task; this is to say that the leader understands the team may have skills and ideas that could benefit the decision making process.

Participative leadership involves the entire team. This is a leadership style in which the leader works closely with team members, focusing on building relationships and rapport. On the flip side of this leadership coin you have the autocratic leadership style, in which the leader tends to be more issue-focused and makes most decisions without input from the team. Building your leadership brand is essential for all types of businesses.

Why does participative leadership work well in certain situations? Allowing the team to assist in the decision making process, to give input and to share ideas, increases the teams involvement as a whole. When the leader says to the team “I trust you to help me work on this problem and reach a solution” those being entrusted by the leader feel empowered. They feel that their skills are being acknowledged and their opinions are being valued. The team members feel they add worth to the company when the leader is asking for input and listening to suggestions.

Along with this, participative leadership lends a multitude of solutions and ideas to problems and other questions that come up in a company or organization. Having a team of people considering options for how to handle marketing a new product, for instance, lends itself to a number of ideas that might not have been on the table at all had the leader been the one to think of ideas and make the final decision with no additional input.

Participative leadership should not be confused, however, with laissez-fair leadership. In laissez-fare leadership, the leader gives the power of decision making to the group, along with the materials needed to make that decision. While this type of leadership style might work in certain situations, such as when a decision must be made about something the leader is not familiar with, in many instances participative leadership works better.

The Benefits of Participative Leadership

Because participative leadership relies heavily on input from the entire team, a variety of benefits can be found when it is used to elicit new ideas or introduce different methods for solving problems.

For a visual, imagine ten people seated around a table. One person is the leader in charge. Nine people are members on the team. The leader in charge has determined a particular product at the company is not selling well. The leader would like input on ideas that can be used to make that product sell better so the company can make more money.  The team is asked to come up with a variety of strategies and potential solutions to make that product sell better.

Now you have nine team members who are each looking at this problem in a unique way. Each team member possesses a certain skill or set of skills that could move that product. Team Member Number One has a strong background in marketing and suggests a particular marketing strategy – taking that product out onto the streets as people leave their offices for the day. Team Member Number Two has a strong background in writing. She suggest a new twist on the old written materials about the product because the old materials don’t really tell the whole story about what the product will do for the consumer. Team Member Number Three is a number’s man. He recommends changes in pricing that might make the product more appealing to the consumer.

And so on.

If you elicit ideas from an entire team of people you are honing in on their strengths and then using those strengths to collectively drive creative decision making for the company.

This is true in any type of company and situation. Your problem might be something different – issues with parking spaces at the office, problems with employee morale, inability to gain new customers despite marketing efforts. If you take that problem to the table and discuss it with the team, you are engaging a wide range of strengths, abilities and skills to help solve the problem. Now you don’t have just one or two solutions set forth by the leader, but you have a multitude of potential solutions thought of by people on the team.

When Does Participative Leadership Work Best?

Participative leadership tends to work best when you aren’t making decisions ‘under fire’. This makes sense considering gathering everyone together for strategy meetings can be a time consuming event. If something happens that requires a quick response, participative leadership would not be the best style to follow in most cases.

This type of leadership works really well in creative environments, too. Consider the multitude of unique ideas that might arise during a meeting for a solution to a problem that requires different perspectives.

Additionally, participative leadership is great when you may want to find more than one solution to a problem, as in the example above with the product that isn’t selling. The problem you have might require a set of solutions, and not just one overall solution. Involving a team of problem solvers can help create a list of potential fixes.

When Does Participative Leadership Not Work as Well?

There are cases when participative leadership may not be the best leadership style to follow.

We mentioned above that when time is of the essence and a decision needs to be made STAT, participative leadership can be a problem. You can’t always call an on-the-spot meeting to figure out the solution to a problem.

Participative leadership doesn’t always work in situations where the team members don’t have access to the end-goals or when they lack the skills needed to create solutions to specific problems. This might be true if the leader is in a position that has required very specific training the rest of the team has not been privy to, or when the leader needs to use classified information that can’t be shared with the team in order to make a decision.

If you are new to leadership, the Transition to Leadership course is designed to teach you how to succeed in a leadership role. Along with this course, sign up for our leadership tools class, and create your own User Manual for leadership.