ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

February 1998


Business And Sports, One-On-One

Measurement On The High Seas

Scientists Develop Formula For Multinational Teamwork

Part-Time Statistics For Full-Time Results

Volunteers Wanted: Must Be Team Player, Success Minded


Chasing Good Examples
by Peter Block

Individual Change Key To Org. Change
by Cathy Kramer


Brief Cases
Business News Briefs

Views for a Change

Book Review

Views For A Change

John Runyan Responds

Your question probes to a deeper level of the movement toward more participative management. This initiative, like many others related to quality and work-life improvement, can sometimes be described, tried and evaluated in superficial ways. Your concern gets at the real practical challenges of carrying through with a meaningful and consistent participative approach.
I believe that these challenges can be tough and confusing .... but they may be nearly irresolvable if certain misconceptions cloud the give-and-take about alternative approaches to difficult tasks and situations. As you sketched out your concern and your request for advice, you were not specific about the crisis that elicited the reactive/directive behavior of your coaches (former supervisors). However, I speculate that several misconceptions may be getting in the way of living out a participative approach in the most mature and successful way possible.
From my point of view, effective participative management has certain very crucial characteristics and meanings. However not all of these conceptions have currency in parts of American business.

For example, good participative management DOES NOT MEAN:

o Focusing more on processes than results.
o Involving everybody all the time in all decisions.
o Working to achieve consensus in all decision making.
o Sacrificing real problem-solving and achieving important results for ideals and feelings of inclusion and participation.

Effective participative management DOES MEAN:

o Focusing primarily on results using strong processes that are robust enough to be adapted to new and challenging situations.
o Involving people "in and near the action" around decision making whenever they choose, but acknowledging that not everyone will have the same interest and capabilities in every decision-making moment.
o Considering, selecting and using a wide range of decision-making styles that are situationally appropriate - including:

Authoritarian - One person decides on actions to be taken.
Consultative - The group provides input to one person who then decides.
Democratic - The group deliberates and then votes on decisions.
Delegative - The group specifies which individuals or sub-groups will decide on various aspects of the issue.
Laissez-faire - The group leaves all specific decisions up to individuals to act or not as they choose.

o Working intently to develop and draw on the leadership potential and talents of all team members over time, but in moments of crisis choosing to go with the leadership of those who have the most to offer to the
resolution of that particular problem.
o Balancing the achievement of problem-resolution and strong results with the needs of the group for inclusion, participation and growth through discussion, debriefs and strong mutual learning processes.
o Having as much clarity and commitment as possible around these principles before crises arise.

Having said all this, I believe that the key factor in the situation that you describe is whether or not all of the members of your teams have the same opportunity as your coaches to exercise a directive style in situations where they may have the superior information, experience, perspective and skills. If all members (including the coaches) can step up to leading at different moments, then you have the best of participative management. If only coaches have this prerogative and only when they unilaterally choose to exercise it, then you have the worst hybrid of old and new.
Let me describe this best of all possible worlds as I envision it. In the face of a crisis, the team quickly gathers, assesses the situation and then establishes a decision-making mode for this situation. This mode could range from a single decision maker with sweeping authority to a sub-group moving with consultative input from all to a whole group effort to achieve consensus, among others. The decision-making mode is determined by qualitative criteria including the information, experience, perspective and skills mentioned above, plus other substantive, timing and impact factors that the group may identify.

The team needs to establish early in its life together the way in which this "triage" process for establishing the decision-making mode will go. For the coach or other member(s) to guide this consideration process and then to be sanctioned and supported to lead (sometimes in a directive fashion) is just one way to proceed. However, this way of progressing toward decisions can be totally consistent with good participative management.

Once the crisis is past, the imperative is for the team to regather and debrief the choices made by the group and the coach with the goal of learning from that experience. Virtually the only mistake that can be made here is not to do this review and learning, leaving everyone to only guess at the ongoing implications of what has happened.

I also hear you asking for advice about what to do when leaders or coaches, despite all previous intentions or protocols, instinctively react using old authoritarian behaviors and styles. Human nature being what it is, this situation inevitably will come up. If for some reason a coach does unilaterally seize the authority for decision making in the group, the debrief and learning session that I've described becomes even more crucial. I think that the coach needs to own the action, openly describe the motivations and then invite feedback from all team members on the impact of those actions. From this initial exploration, the team needs to learn whatever lessons can be derived from the situation - and then consciously and explicitly decide on their intentions and guidelines for what to do in the future in similar situations.

I empathize with your struggle to live out the ideals and potential of participative management in a world peopled with all-too-human former leaders and supervisors. They, as well as your workers/team members, deserve clarity about these best principles and constructive steps of participative management - and grace for the times when they slip from their chosen path.

H. James Harrington Responds

February '98 News for a Change | Email Editor

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