Limits of Participative Leadership
The following post is adapted from my personal academic coursework.
Limitations of Participative Leadership
Some of the most effective leaders I have known were not necessarily those at the top of the organizational structure or even those with a significant understanding of leadership, although both position and knowledge can certainly increase a leader’s impact. They were often those in low-level or mid-level positions such as store managers, team leaders, etc. Some of these used a directive approach to leadership while others used a participative approach. I have also known ineffective leaders who used both approaches. This is not to suggest that either approach is inconsequential, but rather that it is only part of the greater leadership equation.
Perhaps my perception of leaders’ effectiveness results from Schleu and Hüffmeier’s observation that “Followers develop implicit leadership theories based on past experiences and socialization and evaluate their leaders against them.” While I have spent some time in the corporate environment, 75% of my work experience has been in military, security, and educational contexts. While I fully acknowledge the wisdom of Proverbs 11:14 (NKJV), that “in the multitude of counselors there is safety,” I have learned from my experiences that participative leadership has limitations to its effectiveness. Some of these limitations are obvious (e.g. a kindergarten teacher will likely not solicit student input on curriculum decisions or a commander will probably not ask for everyone’s thoughts on whether to engage enemy combatants), but the reasons underlying these limitations merit further discussion.
One limitation of participative leadership is team competence. If the team or its members lack the maturity, expertise, or mental capacity to make effective decisions, then participative leadership will be ineffective. There are, of course, situations in which leaders can still solicit the team’s input (e.g. which student will bring which dish to the class Thanksgiving dinner), but generally speaking, if the group is not competent to make the decision, the leader will have to use a more directive approach.
A second limitation of participative leadership is limited time. Some decisions are so urgent that they must be made immediately—without time to consult the team—if they are to be effective. Classic examples of situations with time constraints include healthcare, combat, and national defense. For instance, during a healthcare trauma situation, when seconds count, it is impractical for a surgeon to postpone treatment to consult with the team. In such contexts, leaders must use a more directive approach.
Nature of Work
A third limitation of participative leadership is the nature of the subordinates’ work. Ferraris mentioned that “participative leadership is one of the most effective leadership styles for team building.” Fransen et al. similarly found that “for task, motivational, and social leadership, the best coaches led the teams in which the leadership is spread.” These are worthwhile goals, but are not present in every organization. Often, leaders are responsible for a team whose work is primarily independent and transactional. Such work may not require a great deal of teamwork or creativity. Leaders in such contexts may find the participative leadership approach to be ill-fitted for the transactional nature of their work.
Another example in which the nature of the work limits the capacity for participative leadership is music. The music conductor’s primary leadership function is to lead the ensemble to effectively communicate the composer’s musical ideas. This means the team of musicians is limited to what the composer wrote. While the members of the ensemble may all possess the expertise to make these decisions, it is impractical to have 150 musicians collectively decide when to release the final note of a song. This is the job of the conductor and the task does not lend itself well to participative leadership.
Participative leadership is a highly effective leadership style in many situations. However, there are contexts in which its effectiveness is limited due to low team competence, time constraints, or the nature of the work. Good leaders must carefully evaluate their environment and select the best approach for each leadership context.
Ferraris, V. A. (2015). “Lead from the front”: Participative leadership. The Journal of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery, 150(6), 1413-1415. https://doi.org/10.1016/jtcvs.2015.09.076
Fransen, K., Mertens, N., Cotterill, S. T., Vande Broek, G., & Boen, F. (2020). From autocracy to empowerment: Teams with shared leadership perceive their coaches to be better leaders. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 32(1), 5-27. https://doi.org/10.1080/10413200.2019.1617370
Holy Bible, New King James Version. (2020). Thomas Nelson (Original work published 1982).
Schleu, J. E., & Hüffmeier, J. (in press). Simply the best? A systematic literature review on the predictive validity of employee performance for leader performance. Human Resources Management Review. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.hrmr.2020.100777