When considering the different types of leadership styles that would best benefit your team, you may have come across the idea of participative leadership, and you may be wondering if a participative leadership style (or inclusive style) would enhance your organization or team. Read on to learn the characteristics, benefits, disadvantages, and techniques of this style of leadership.

What Is a Democratic or Participative Leadership Style?

A participative leadership style is a more democratic method of leadership that allows a group to discuss and make decisions together. This is in contrast to a top-down or command and control style in which leaders make decisions without consulting with their subordinates ahead of time. The participative style encourages collaboration and empowerment and requires group members to contribute to the dialogue as the team makes decisions together.

The participative leadership style also instills team members with a feeling of responsibility for the goals or strategies of an organization, regardless of whether those objectives are achieved. Group members working under this type of leadership may feel that their thoughts and individual perspectives are respected more and might also feel more closely aligned and connected as a team. They realize they need to trust and know each other better because their combined insight and drive is shaping their everyday work and the team’s ultimate success.

What Are the Characteristics of Participative Leadership?

The participative leadership style may seem like a good idea in theory, but how can it be successfully implemented? Leaders who wish to implement this style must build the skills critical to guiding the group and facilitating discussion, especially when group members are not used to this style. The following is a list of tactics you can use to encourage full team participation:

  1. Lead Discussions: Open dialogue doesn’t always happen automatically and discussions may not stay on track without a flexible leader. Help your group talk through causes and solutions to problems as well as collaboratively make decisions; gently bring them back to the topic of discussion if their conversation wanders.
  2. Deliver Accurate Data: A leader has considerable power because he or she often supplies the information that the group uses in their decision-making process. It is wise to be as transparent and open as possible in delivering this information. This will foster trust among group members and lead to better long-term teamwork.
  3. Encourage Sharing: Help every member contribute ideas from their unique perspectives. In a strong team, each employee has expertise and a point of view that the others need, which will improve the quality of decisions and solutions.
  4. Summarize Progress: Keep track of the key points that were delivered to the group and the solutions or decisions that the group reached. Make this summary available to all team members.
  5. Encourage Decisiveness: Help your team conclude a discussion and achieve closure. They may need to be encouraged to be decisive, especially if they are afraid of being responsible for a wrong decision. Help them simply reach a good decision using the data they currently have.
  6. Take Action: Once a decision leads to the creation of a new plan of action or a new project, help the team break it into components or tasks that need to be completed. Then, assign each task or project area to appropriate team members so they can begin taking action within defined timeframes.

Who Is an Example of a Participative Leader?

When one only sees examples of top-down or traditional leaders, it may be difficult to imagine what a participative leader looks like. But if you have seen a skilled facilitator leading a team discussion, you can visualize that person as a template.

A facilitator has many of the qualities of a participative leader, using techniques to get everyone to participate, offer ideas, and contribute to the group’s goals. He or she helps group members collaborate and discuss a topic, issue, or problem so they can discover a solution, ensure shared understanding, and reach a conclusion.

Like a facilitator, a participative leader may also choose to use techniques that may not seem democratic in certain situations. He or she doesn’t let the group decide upon every detail and may choose to control, guide, collaborate, reinforce, or empower the group as the requirements of the leader, the situation, and the skills of the team dictate. The group may also be required to work within certain boundaries or parameters that are not open for collaboration.

In other words, participative leadership is not a free-for-all with no structure or constraints; rather, it imposes some structures that then confer a certain amount of consensus building and decision-making power to the group.

What Are the Disadvantages of Participative Leadership?

Although participative leadership can be a powerful option in some situations, it may not always be best. Here are some associated costs and difficulties to consider:

  • Time or Situational Considerations: The process of discussion, collaborative consensus, and decision implementation takes time and energy, which might increase labor costs and could delay actual production. Top-down decisions can help teams be more productive in certain business models or under specific circumstances.
  • The Illusion of Democracy: All democracies tend to marginalize dissenting voices. Certain team members who disagree with group decisions may be afraid to speak up, slow down the process, or believe they are the only person with that view. They don’t want to rock the boat when, in fact, a bit of rocking may be needed to spark creativity.
  • Disparate Levels of Decision-Making Capacity or Needed Skills: Some team members may have the experience necessary to make large contributions to important decisions, while others might feel unqualified or lost in the process.
  • Lack of Collaboration Tools: A team might not be well-equipped to gather and combine group members’ thoughts in an effective way.
  • Indecisiveness: A leader or facilitator may be uncertain the group has actually reached a decision or group consensus, possible due to group dynamics, groupthink, or other factors. Some members may simply be louder than others, while quieter group members may not feel comfortable sharing vital ideas.
  • Group Think: When people are so like minded they may agree to choose a path that could waste precious time and resources. It some situations it may be disastrous. These situations require divergent ideas and critical thinking.

Each leader should consider the industry, mix of personnel, skills of team members and the leader him or herself, organizational norms, requirements of the situation, strategic direction, and other factors before choosing a leadership style. Although certain organizations thrive under a participative approach (e.g., creative design firms), others wisely avoid it (e.g., fast-food franchises with carefully defined process and practices).

What Are the Five Levels of Leader Participation?

A leader who is engaged in participative leadership may retain decision rights, share decision rights, or elect to empower others to make decisions without further input form the leader based on the needs of the situation, the leader, and the team’s skills. A smart leader is flexible and should choose the leadership style that is most appropriate along a continuum between control and empowerment. Remember, this should be based on the skills of the individual and the task at hand. Leaders may switch between these levels as appropriate.

These five levels are arranged here in descending order of individual leader authority:

  1. Control: The leader makes decisions on her own, consulting the group or not as she sees fit, and imposes her choices.
  2. Guide: The leader guides the group in a solution and makes his own decisions after soliciting input or opinions from others, which he may or may not consider.
  3. Collaborate: The leader solicits opinions from the group and actively and openly uses them throughout the decision-making process.
  4. Reinforce: The leader is used as a sounding board by the group, which discusses the situation, reaches a consensus and makes decisions about the best course of action with minimal input from the leader.
  5. Empower: The leader empowers team members to make certain decisions themselves. They do not need to check with the leader before moving forward.