ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

December 1997


Whole Foods Includes Whole Self
Capitalizing on Human Resources Encourages Growth at Whole Foods Market

Making Waves With Employee Recognition
Rewards and Recognition Practices at Sea World

Honeywell's High Flying Division Shows Company The Way To Participation
Union-Management Relations Help Airplane Part Manufacturer Excel


Freedom's Just Another Word
by Peter Block

Highs and Lows Of Participation
by Cathy Kramer


Brief Cases
Business News Briefs

Views for a Change

Book Review


Highs And Lows Of Participation
By Cathy Kramer

I've been writing about the realities of change and participation from a manager's perspective. What's it like for staff in an organization trying to be fully participative? What I hear from our staff and others is that participation solves some problems, but creates others. If what I heard came in the form of front-page news, here are a few of the stories.

Organizations Are Personal. Or Make That, Personalities.
Personalities and style are a problem - a participative culture doesn't change that. Clear processes and tight structures help contain the effect of personality at work. Little structure allows personalities in all their glory, to flourish. The more open the structure, the less control there is and the more people have to handle their own conflicts. However, there is greater latitude in a participative culture to discuss different personality styles and their influence on the work.
Participative cultures revel in diversity, allowing for a wider range of organizationally accepted behaviors. When you allow freedom of expression, some will abuse this freedom. For the people around them this triggers the wish for more consistency and control. Some people will not care about the institution no matter how you manage them. This was expressed as: "There is as much freedom to shine as there is to goof off. No matter how tight you run the ship, there are some characters who take advantage or see the down side of everything."

The More Participative the Culture, the Higher the Expectations for Participation in Everything
People are proud to be trying to live out principles of empowerment. The problem, as stated by a staff person, is this: "the organization is expected to create the perfect environment for accomplishing work." No matter how much we try to include and use everyone's talents, no one gets their ideas included all the time and people are disappointed easily. "If my idea does not get implemented - it doesn't matter why. It's hard to believe in the process if I don't see my ideas somewhere in the end product." One of a managers" responsibilities becomes modulating these expectations which seem impossible to fulfill. A traditional structure provides firmer boundaries between levels and departments and who makes what decision is clearer. In a participative culture, more decisions are in gray areas. Staff demand clear communication about why this decision was made by this person or team under these conditions. But even when managers are totally clear, it still may not be enough.
Righteous indignation occurs when decisions made by a particular level or team, are changed by someone else. Once you create the expectations around participation and ownership, you need to follow through. "One year we vote on whether or not we receive raises and what goes into the coke machine, the next year, we don't make any decisions!" Participation is a window that can't be closed once you start to open it.

There is Nothing Worse Than a High Control Manager Who Thinks They're Participative
Not every manager can live out the values of a participative culture. Some find it more difficult than others. Staff working for more traditional managers who believe themselves to be participative are operating in a double bind. They know their manager is not participative and yet this becomes undiscussable since the manager obviously believes they are uncontrolling and participative. But, going through the motions is always transparent. Hence the term, 'walking your talk', as much as we are all sick of it, is the point.
This was summarized as: "All the balanced scorecards, facilitators and retreats won't work if who you are doesn't shift."

Managers Still Have More Power Than the Rest of Us
Blaming those in power and expecting to be taken care of is hardwired into the fabric of our culture. Even in a participative culture there is hierarchy. Bosses are still bosses and generate dependency and conflict just by their existence. "Just the fact we have managers, no matter how much freedom and responsibility I'm given, gives me an excuse. I will still blame my manager for not giving me the right tools or information." We are all ambivalent about power and responsibility. The paradox is summarized by this comment "I'm happy to do what I'm told, but I don't need much direction."
Is it easier to work in a participate culture? No, as Jody Hatch from Whole Foods points out in her interview in this issue. Would staff rather work in a traditional organization? Most wouldn't. The promise of participation is not that organizations will be easier to work in, but that the work will be done with more meaning and value. There are liabilities to working in a fully participative organization - much like tradeoffs in a democratic society, where complex issues simply do not have easy solutions. Being fully involved means sharing the real pain involved in many organizational decisions. And, it entitles all staff to feel they have contributed to accomplishing the purposes of the organization in an authentic way.

December '97 News for a Change | Email Editor
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