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The participative leadership style: what it is and why it works

participative leadership style is displayed by a man with pink hair talking to team members

Think it’s your job as the leader to make every single decision yourself and hand down marching orders to your team? That’s not always the case—especially when it comes to a participative leadership style.

Before we sink our teeth into the details of this approach, let’s lay the foundation by reviewing some leadership statistics: 

A Deloitte survey found that the most effective 21st century leaders need to have the ability to [1]: 

  • Lead through ambiguity and complexity (81%)
  • Lead through influence (65%)
  • Manage on a remote basis (50%)
  • Manage a workforce with a combination of humans and machines (47%)
  • Lead more quickly (44%)
  • 83% of respondents said their C-suite executives rarely collaborate or only do so on an ad hoc basis. [1]
  • 34% of employees worldwide think that their company doesn’t listen to their ideas for improving the business. [2]
  • Only 18% of organizations say their leaders are “very effective” at meeting business goals. [3]
  • Managers have a big impact on employee engagement, accounting for at least 70% of the variance in employee engagement scores. [4]
  • Only 18% of leaders believe their organization has a transparent and open model [1].

Participants in a Stanford study who worked collaboratively stuck with a difficult task 64% longer than their peers who worked alone. [5]

  • Participants who worked collaboratively also expressed greater enjoyment in the task and performed at a higher level.
Table of contents
What is a participative leadership style?
Are there different types of participative leadership styles?
The pros and cons of participative leadership
Is a participative leadership style the right choice for you?
There’s no one-size-fits-all leadership style

What is a participative leadership style?

A participative leadership style is one in which all members of the group or team are invited to contribute ideas, ask questions, and assist in the decision-making process. 

Rather than the manager or leader doling out instructions, they invite their team members to participate in conversations and influence choices with their own suggestions. You might also hear this referred to as a democratic leadership style.

Are there different types of participative leadership styles?

Participative leadership is a leadership style in its own right, but it can be broken down into even more specific approaches to management and leadership.

Let’s add some clarity with a few participative leadership style examples. Sasha is the founder of a marketing analytics startup, and she’s trying to decide which software feature her team should prioritize next. She could: 

  • Option A: Invite her team to a brainstorming session and consider all of their suggestions before making the decision herself.

  • Option B: Ask her team to vote on which feature they should focus on next. The feature with the most vote wins.

  • Option C: Instruct her team to discuss different feature options until they all reach an agreement on which one should be at the top of their list. 

Those are all examples of participative leadership, since the entire group was invited to contribute to the conversation and the process was collaborative. However, the decisions were made three very different ways. It’s proof that there are several different participative leadership styles, including: 

  • Democratic participative leadership: The leader is in a position of power and gets to make the final call, but the input of the group is still gathered and weighed. This is Option A above. 
  • Collective participative leadership: The group is responsible for the decision, which is made when the majority agrees. This is Option B above.

  • Consensus participative leadership: The group is responsible for the decision, but they need to be in complete and total agreement in order to move forward. This is Option C above. 

One of these participative leadership styles isn’t inherently better than the others. Which one works best will depend on your team, culture, the decision you need to make, and more.

The pros and cons of participative leadership

Like any other leadership style, participative leadership has its benefits and its drawbacks. Which pros and cons should you be aware of? We’re digging into the most notable ones right here.

The pros

Let’s start with the good news first: Participate leadership offers a number of positives for organizations. 

  • Boosted morale: Employees don’t like feeling like another cog in a wheel, and involving them in decisions—especially ones that directly impact them—can lead to a happier team and greater productivity. In fact, when employees feel heard, they’re reportedly more than four times more likely to feel motivated to do their best work. 
  • Creative decision-making: You’ve heard the old “two brains are better than one” sentiment, right? When you brainstorm ideas and choose a way forward as a group, you have the benefit of considering different perspectives and suggestions which can lead to better, more creative decisions and solutions. 
  • Increased understanding: Participative leadership requires that team members have visibility into what’s happening with the organization at a broader level—things like your mission, goals, and core values (something that only one in four employees say they  currently believe in). That gives employees greater context as they do their individual work. Plus, there’s likely better understanding and buy-in of decisions, since team members got to play a part in that process. 

The cons

It’s hard to deny the advantages of a participative leadership style, but that doesn’t mean it’s without its flaws. Here are a few pitfalls you might experience.

  • Slow decisions: Needing to consider different viewpoints can be time-consuming, and solo decisions are often far more efficient. Participative leadership can cause challenges in environments where speedy decisions and quick action are needed. 
  • Competing opinions: Participative leadership is great when there’s agreement—even if a majority lands on a solution or suggestion. But what about when people disagree and there’s no obvious consensus? That can make it challenging to decide how to move forward, and can cause frustration, tension, and even resentment on a team. 
  • Shifting responsibility: Not every situation lends itself to a participative leadership style. Sometimes the manager needs to be the one to own difficult decisions (like when there are layoffs, as one example). If everything becomes participative, it can feel as if the leader doesn’t want to shoulder the burden or take accountability, so they shift the tough decision to the group. 

Is a participative leadership style the right choice for you?

Participative leadership styles definitely have their advantages, but how can you tell if this approach is the right one for you?

Start by looking at the results of your F4S assessment to see if you have a high affinity for any of the following motivations:

People who have these motivations high on their list typically find a participative leadership style to be a natural match for them.

Beyond that, keep in mind that a participative leadership style isn’t the right choice for every team or every decision. Let’s look at some criteria for when you might want to try this more democratic approach—as well as when it should be avoided.

A participative leadership style is a good fit when…

  • You have time to make decisions: Remember that participative leadership isn’t always efficient, and trying to use this approach to make hasty choices will only inspire chaos and stress. Organizations that take methodical approaches to evaluate ideas and make decisions are generally a better fit for participative leadership styles. 
  • Your organization prioritizes transparency: People can't contribute suggestions in a vacuum. They require some visibility into the organizations objectives, what other teams are working on, what challenges you’re facing, and more. Companies and teams who emphasize transparency throughout the entire organization have a much easier time with participative leadership, as team members have all of the context they need. 
  • Your team has a lot of psychological safety: For effective participative leadership, team members need to feel comfortable voicing their thoughts and opinions—without fear or failure or repercussions. Teams need to have a high degree of psychological safety so that everybody feels confident in participating in the discussion and process. 

A participative leadership style isn’t a good fit when…

  • Your organization prioritizes processes and protocols: Participative leadership is about embracing creativity and welcoming opinions from all over the org chart. If your company values traditional hierarchy and established processes, then participative leadership will likely only cause challenges. 
  • You frequently have to make breakneck decisions: If your organization moves fast and needs decisions made in the snap of your fingers, a participative leadership style will be far too time-consuming for your action-oriented team.  

There’s no one-size-fits-all leadership style

A participative leadership style might be the right choice for one team, but not another. Or it might even be a great fit for one project, but not some of your other work.

That’s the great thing about leadership styles: they can change and adapt. In fact, that level of flexibility is a leadership all on its own. It’s called situational leadership, in which a manager tweaks their leadership style based on the unique situation they’re in. 

When you find that you have time to provide necessary context, encourage discussion, and evaluate creative ideas? Then a participative leadership style can be the perfect approach to help you land on the best solution—and engage your team in the process. 

Schedule a free demo to learn how F4S can help you rapidly up-level your leadership skills.

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