Saturday, December 8, 2012

Why Participative Democracy at Work is Not An Easy Concept

The notion of participative democracy in workplaces probably had its origins in the 1950s with the work of Kurt Levin. Since then a fairly formidable literature has developed along with techniques and methods for practitioners that come under the rubric of open systems processes. Many consultants around the globe have used these methods in either strategic planning, organisational development projects, leadership programs and training. Many tertiary education courses on management include at least a passing reference to participative democracy.

The basic tenets of participative democracy have been robustly demonstrated to improve productivity, engagement, creativity, and innovation in organisations. People work better and are happier in democratic workplaces. The idea of transformational leadership has built on democratic principles that include: participation in decision making; effective communication; jointly creating and transmitting a vision; and control over work. Others, such as Daniel Pink, for example, have shown that autonomy, purpose and mastery increase motivation and creativity. All of this is based on a well-established psychological research about what makes people motivated at work.

Despite all the evidence it is still the case that the idea of participative democracy in workplaces has not caught on. The well-documented processes and methods used for organisational change, strategizing and organisational development are rarely used. Consultants sometimes find it hard to sell the idea of very effective open systems processes to managers wanting to improve their organisation. Even when they are shown to work organisations eventually revert to type and fail to continue to use them.

One case history of a university comes to mind. The CEO of this small regional university used a lot of open systems processes to ensure that it differentiated itself from the rest. In doing so it managed to become a leader in both distance education and, more importantly, partnerships with public and private sector organisations. This was at a time when such notions were new, if not alien (as my PhD showed) to higher education institutions. The democratic, open systems approach was driven by a person who was hired for this task: someone who knew how to apply its processes.

When the CEO and his successor, who carried on the strategy at least in part, and the facilitator eventually left the institution quickly changed. It reverted to being like all the other universities in that country and, in doing so became irrelevant in many ways by being like the rest. Sadly the rest were all much bigger and able to do it better. The university was no longer differentiated in the market.

I was chatting to a colleague recently about this and he assured me that the same thing had happened, albeit on a smaller scale with a number of university programs in various institutions. That is, innovation was stifled by a drive towards a universal model and a closed systems rather than an open systems approach.

Recently I have been wondering about why, despite the evidence, despite the obvious value, that open systems and democratic leadership are valuable that the concept(s) have been largely ignored by the mainstream. Critical theorists would argue that it has to do with power and I have some sympathy with this view. As a Darwinist it makes sense that maintaining one’s power is fundamental to survival of one’s genes and to offspring. But I have often thought that there might be something else.

There may be another contributing factor and it is discussed below.

The idea of open systems and participative democracy is fundamentally liberal. It relies on a trust of people, that they are indeed self-motivating given the right circumstances, not just want to do a good job but to excel as a means to self-fulfilment. Liberalism emphasises freedom of choice and democratic principles on the assumption that people will rise to the occasion and contribute to society.

Organisations, with few notable exceptions, are largely conservative in nature: as are their managers. Conservatives have a different view of human nature. Largely it is that people cannot function effectively without direction and need control. For the conservative the decision makers have risen to the top by way of natural selection and need to rule, preferring autocracy over democracy.

Most importantly, recent research seems to suggest that the brains of conservatives and liberals are hard wired differently. Conservatives may have an innate difficulty with change and uncertainty that cause them anxiety. Thus, there is a need to maintain the status quo, to cover all bases, to be cautious and to make sure there is a tight rein on people.

The idea of open systems and democratic processes would be an anathema to the conservative. In fact, even to the liberally minded some open systems processes can seem anarchic, at least at the beginning. In most of the processes the manager is treated as just a member of the group, whose opinions are given the same status as everyone else. Handing over power to the masses is not an easy thing to do, even when the benefits are understood.

As I’ve mentioned previously, humans are more prone to acting on what they believe and on the basis of their personality characteristics no matter what the facts or evidence might be.

So, it would seem that the attempt towards healthier and more productive workplaces is going to be a bit of a struggle. I guess all we can do is keep on accumulating the evidence and keep on talking about it. Mostly I try to incorporate the principles when I get to work with organisations despite CEOs mostly wanting simple solutions that will probably not produce great outcomes.

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