From The Order of Her Noodly Appendage
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Participative Premises[edit]

What is it most of us really want from work? We would like to find the most effective, most productive, most rewarding way of working together. We would like to know that our work process uses all of the appropriate and pertinent resources: human, physical, financial. We would like a work process and relationships that meet our personal needs for belonging, for contributing, for meaningful work, for the opportunity to make a commitment, for the opportunity to grow and be at least reasonably in control of our own destinies. Finally we'd like someone to say "Thank you!"

Business has been moving for many years—and it will continue to do so—from a posture and a practice of management through power to a process of leadership through persuasion. This, of course, tends to make the use of formal organizational power out-of-date.

I believe that the most effective contemporary management process is participative management. Participative management is glibly discussed these days in a number of magazines and books, but it is not a theoretical position to be adopted after studying a few journals. It begins with a belief in the potential of people. Participative management without a belief in that potential and without convictions about the gifts people bring to organizations is a contradiction in terms.

Participative management arises out of the heart and out of a personal philosophy about people. It cannot be added to, or subtracted from, a corporate policy manual as though it were one more managerial tool.

Everyone has the right and the duty to influence decision making and to understand the results. Participative management guarantees that decisions will not be arbitrary, secret, or closed to questioning. Participative management is not democratic. Having a say differs from having a vote.

Effective influencing and understanding spring largely from healthy relationships among the members of the group. Leaders need to foster environments and work processes within which people can develop high-quality relationships—relationships with each other, relationships with the group with which we work, relationships with our clients and customers.

How does one approach the problem of turning the ideals about relationships into reality? There are no guaranteed formulas, but I would propose five steps as a starting point. Surely, you will revise and add to the list.

Respect people. This begins with an understanding of the diversity of their gifts. Understanding the diversity of these gifts enables us to begin taking the crucial step of trusting each other. It also enables us to begin to think in a new way about the strengths of others. Everyone comes with certain gifts—but not the same gifts. True participation and enlightened leadership allow these gifts to be expressed in different ways and at different times. For the CEO to vote on the kind of drill press to buy would be foolish. For the drill press operator (who should be voting on the kind of tool to use) to vote on whether to declare a stock split would be equally foolish.

Understand that what we believe precedes policy and practice. Here I am talking about both our corporate and personal value systems. It seems to me that our value system and world view should be as closely integrated into our work lives as they are integrated into our lives with our families, our churches, and our other activities and groups.

Many managers are concerned about their style. They wonder whether they are perceived as open or autocratic or participative. As practice is to policy, so style is to belief. Style is merely a consequence of what we believe, of what is in our hearts.

Agree on the rights of work. Each of us, no matter what our rank in the hierarchy may be, has the same rights: to be needed, to be involved, to have a covenantal relationship, to understand the corporation, to affect our destiny, to be accountable, to appeal, to make a commitment. I will say more about the rights of work in the next chapter.

Understand the respective role and relationship of contractual agreements and covenants. Contractual relationships cover such things as expectations, objectives, compensation, working conditions, benefits, incentive opportunities, constraints, timetables, etc. These are all a part of our normal life and need to be there.

But more is needed—particularly today when the majority of us who work can properly be classified as volunteers. The best people working for organizations are like volunteers. Since they could probably find good jobs in any number of groups, they choose to work somewhere for reasons less tangible than salary or position. Volunteers do not need contracts, they need covenants.

Covenantal relationships enable cooperations and institutions to be hospitable to the unusual person and to unusual ideas. Covenantal relationships enable participation to be practiced and inclusive groups to be formed. The differences between covenants and contracts appear in detail in “Intimacy."

Understand that relationships count more than structure. Every educational institution goes through periodic evaluation by some sort of accreditation committee. A small college with which I have been associated went through such an evaluation recently. The committee's report noted an especially high level of trust between the president, who was to retire soon, and the faculty. To create this trust with the next president, the committee recommended that the college make the necessary changes in their “structure.” The president was justifiably amused. Structures do not have anything to do with trust. People build trust.

Finally, one question: Would you rather work as a part of an outstanding group or be a part of a group of outstanding individuals? This may be the key question in thinking about the premises behind participation.