Eight Principles – Participative Management

This article draws from something I read recently by Joan Lancourt and Charles Savage called Organizational Transformation and the Changing Role of the Human Resource Function

What is participative management?

I call it the humanising style of management that I advocate and endorse. Most of my articles describe different aspects of it. The ultimate result is that we treat each other as adults, with sincerity, focus and honesty.

It is also a style of management that works.

It’s an open form of management where employees have strong decision-making roles. Participative management can be developed by owners, CEOs and management teams who strive to actively seek a strong cooperative relationship with their employees: their “co-workers” or “associates”. The advantages of participative management include increased productivity, improved quality, and reduced costs. Expansion of the groups activities and their successes is only limited by their imagination.

Beware however, as it is also a buzz word given lip service by companies appear egalitarian to their stakeholders. So if you have great work environment, and you want to shout out about it, have a third party such as WorldBlu endorse it.

Traci Fenton at WorldBlu lists the criteria in a very concise way, so I suggest heading on over to her site and checking it out. If your company is like this, then be listed by WorldBlu. Your employees will love the recognition and it will help your business in all the areas I discuss here.

Here are some companies very well engaged with participative management:

Joan Lancourt and Charles Savage studied these eight companies and their work makes for interesting reading.

There are eight core principles that two of the companies, W.L. Gore and Oticon developed, however they are in use by all companies that engage in participatory management to varying degrees.

These first four principles are from the company W.L. Gore Incorporated:

1. The Freedom Principle encourages associates to grow in knowledge, skill, and scope of responsibility.

2. The Waterline Principle states that mistakes, which are inevitable in any dynamic organization, “above the waterline” are not a serious offence. However, mistakes “below the water line” can sink the ship. Therefore, before taking a serious risk, associates need to check with other key people.

3. The Commitment Principle indicates that associates are expected to keep any commitments they make.

4. The Fairness Principle mandates that associates be fair to everyone else, including suppliers and customers.

Leadership at Gore is not positional; it is expected of everyone, and a natural leader is defined by his or her followers.

Malcolm Gladwell says this in his piece The Tipping Point says this: Small group peer pressure is much more powerful than the concept of a boss (page 186).

That is why this works. We love to belong to a successful group and our peers are quite to point out when we are not pulling our weight.

(By the way, Malcolm also covers these points which further describe why participatory management can be so successful: Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor, and the Power of Context. I won’t cover them here, suffice to say organisations that apply them do exceptionally well).

The next four principles come from Oticon, where their set of core values to guide the work of the company emerged after hundreds of hours of discussion. These values supplanted the previous formal structures and formed the framework for the four operating principles which guide the transformed organization:

5. The Choice Principle states that employees may choose their projects and are also free to determine what training they need, their vacation schedules, and their working hours.

6. The Multijob Principle requires everyone to work on a project outside his or her area of prime competence. This is based on the assumption that “a top chip designer who performs a marketing function in one project becomes a much better chip designer. . . . because he sees the world stereophonically.”

7. The Transparency Principle promises that with almost no exceptions, every piece of information is available to everyone. The agility, integration, and alignment that result from this policy far outweigh any risk associated with openness.

8. The No Controls Principle means that projects emerge based on opportunity, need, and interest. Skunk works are common and, although there is a strategic plan, it is not interpreted rigidly.

Here are some other points raised by Lancourt and Savage with their work:

 In considering how to make the company a national player, Ralph Stayer of Johnsonville Foods came to realize that by keeping people dependent on him for leadership and decisions, he, not the employees, was the source of the problem. He likened the situation to that of a buffalo herd in which the herd simply follows the lead buffalo anywhere – even over a cliff. In contrast to the buffalo, in a flock of geese, each goose is responsible for getting itself to the flock’s destination. When the lead goose gets tired, another goose moves forward to take its place, assuring a fast and steady pace. To help Johnsonville Foods transform itself from a herd of unquestioning followers to a more empowered community, Stayer stopped merely delegating work and instead transferred ownership of the customer relationships to the organizational members.

At Semco, the leadership baton rotates every six months among the six “counselors” in an effort to void what other companies get stuck with -responsibility nailed down to a single man or woman. At Semco there’s no one to blame if the company goes down the drain. When financial performance is one person’s problem, then everyone else can relax. You get to pass on the baton, but it comes back again two-and-a-half years later.

Oticon and Semco have found that by openly sharing all information, including financial and salary information, with everyone, the company creates the alignment necessary to maintain order without having to impose controls from the top. This emphasis on shared values and widely available information brings us to a fourth theme: the way in which organizations have altered the language they use.

At Johnsonville Foods, the role of supervisor has been defined as that of “coordinator,” and the role of manager has become that of “coach.” At Oticon, managers are now “leaders” and “sponsors,” and “sponsorship” at W.L. Gore is also an important role. At Semco, the six senior executives have become “counselors,” and department heads are “partners.”

There you have it. A start at least anyway. Put it into practice and let your own groups’ style and community standards influence the result.

Jeremiah Josey


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